Chicago-Area Health Officials Watching New Omicron Variant ‘Very Closely'

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Chicago health officials say they are keeping a close watch on the new coronavirus variant, Omicron, after a panel of the World Health Organization called the concerning threat "highly transmittable."

Dr. Rachel Rubin, co-lead and senior medical officer for the Cook County Department of Public Health, issued a statement Friday saying officials are unaware whether or not the variant has reached the U.S., but will continue to follow health recommendations.

"We are watching the Omicrom variant very carefully. We don't know if the variant has reached the United States, but given the global concern about the virus, it is more important than ever to continue to follow public health recommendations: Mask Up, Wash Your Hands, Stay Physically Distant, and most importantly, get vaccinated and get your booster as soon as you are eligible. The longer people do not get vaccinated, the risk of deadlier variants increases," Rubin said in a statement.

An advisory panel of the WHO on Friday classified the new Omicron COVID variant first detected in South Africa as a highly transmissible virus of concern.

The U.N. health agency also said early evidence on the variant, until now known by the technical term B.1.1.529, has shown an increased risk of reinfection compared to other highly transmissible variants, indicating that people who contracted COVID and recovered could be more subject to catching it again with Omicron.

The WHO suggested that the variant could pose greater risks than the delta variant, which was first detected in India and has been causing ravages worldwide.

Variants of concern, which include alpha, beta and delta, have shown to spread more easily, cause more serious disease, or dent the effectiveness of vaccines and other COVID-fighting tools. They’re more worrying than the so-called variants of interest — like mu and lambda — that have affected aspects like transmissibility and severity of the disease but aren't as transmissible.

The White House said Friday that the U.S. will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region beginning Monday. President Joe Biden said that means “no travel” to or from the designated countries except for returning U.S. citizens and permanent residents who test negative.

The European Union, along with Canada and Russia, have announced a pause on flights to and from southern Africa amid growing concerns surrounding the new variant.

On Friday, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency amid a recent surge in coronavirus metrics and concern for potential spikes due to both the Delta and Omicron variants.

Going into effect on Dec. 3,the order will allow New York to acquire pandemic-fighting supplies, increase hospital capacity and fight potential staffing shortages. It would also allow the state Health Department to limit non-essential and non-urgent procedures at hospitals.

Without any identified cases of the Omicron variant in Chicago, the city's coronavirus metrics continue to rise, based on the latest data.

According to CDPH, average daily COVID cases are up to 605, which is a 10% increase from last week. Hospitalizations are also up 4% compared to the prior week, while the positivity rate sits at 3.1%, which is up from 2.8% last week.

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