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New York declares ‘disaster emergency’ to prevent spread of new COVID variant

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
New pandemic-related travel restrictions will go into effect Monday. (Photo by AP)

New York Governor Kathy Hochul has declared a state of “disaster emergency” in the state due to a spike in new COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations, and to prevent a possible outbreak of the newly-identified Omicron variants of coronavirus.

The declaration, which goes into effect on December 3 through January 15, will allow New York to acquire pandemic-fighting supplies, increase hospital capacity and vaccination efforts and remedy potential staffing shortages.

"We continue to see warning signs of spikes this upcoming winter, and while the new Omicron variant has yet to be detected in New York State, it's coming," Hochul said on Friday.

The executive order came hours after the governor said her office was closely monitoring the Omicron variant, which was first detected in South Africa earlier this week.

The number of new cases in New York has increased recently, even as vaccination rates have improved.

In the two weeks before Thanksgiving Day, the daily average of new cases rose 37 percent to 6,666 in New York, according to a New York Times database.

More than 56,000 people have died of the disease in the state.

On Friday, the World Health Organization said the new strain was a variant “of concern” and warned that it had a large number of mutations.

"This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning," the UN public health body said in a statement.

US President Joe Biden issued travel restrictions for South Africa and seven other African countries in an effort to contain the new potentially more transmittable variant.

The travel ban will not apply to American citizens or lawful permanent residents, officials said.

Health experts said the travel restrictions will probably not stop the virus from entering the United States, but it will give officials and pharmaceutical companies time to determine whether the existing vaccines are effective against Omicron.

“It’s going to buy us some time,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s top infectious disease expert, said. “It’s not going to be possible to keep this infection out of the country. The question is: Can you slow it down?”

Fauci said the new variant has about 30 mutations, about a third of which are on a part of the virus that is associated with transmissibility. That suggests Omicron may be more transmissible and may prove resilient against the current vaccines.

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