New York governor Kathy Hochul signed an executive order on Friday lasting until at least 15 January that branded the state’s rates of Covid-19 transmission as a disaster requiring urgent aid to local governments according to the Hill.
The Omicron variant, previously known as “B.1.1.529”, has alarmed health officials since its discovery in Botswana earlier this month, spreading rapidly through South Africa and into Europe and Asia.
Scientists fear it could become a so-called “escape variant” that is resistant to current Covid vaccines, and the World Health Organization (WHO) has classified it as a “variant of concern”.
President Joe Biden has imposed new travel restrictions on Botswana, South Africa and six other sub-Saharan African countries, also urging Americans to get their vaccines and booster shots. As of Friday, the variant has not been spotted in the US.
Ms Hochul said: “We continue to see warning signs of spikes in Covid this winter, and while the new Omicron variant has yet to be detected in New York state, it’s coming.
“Today I signed an executive order to help boost hospital capacity ahead of potential spikes. Through this action, we will also be able to acquire critical supplies more quickly to combat the pandemic.
“I urge New Yorkers to take advantage of our greatest weapon in the pandemic: the vaccine. Get vaccinated and get the booster as soon as you are able.”
New York was deeply scarred by its experience as the epicentre of America’s coronavirus pandemic in March and April last year, when deaths per day peaked at close to 1,000 and bodies accumulated in refrigerated trailers for lack of space in morgues.
Another Covid surge would be one of Ms Hochul’s first major tests since she assumed the governorship in August after her predecessor Andrew Cuomo resigned over sexual harassment allegations.
The new executive order says New York is now seeing transmission rates “not seen since April 2020”, and temporarily suspends some state procurement laws to let officials rapidly set up services and purchase supplies.
It activates the “surge and flex” system set up by Mr Cuomo last year to centrally monitor and coordinate hospital capacity. It takes effect on 3 December.
Scientists are still studying Omicron to discover whether it is more contagious than previous variants. Compared to Delta, it has twice as many mutations on its spike protein, the microscopic structure that gives coronaviruses their name and lets them latch onto human cells.
All three major vaccine makers are testing their current products against the variant, with results due in the next few weeks.