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New Orleans officials warn public about omicron, stop short of re-imposing mask mandate

covid cdc 2.jpg
A computer rendering of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

As concern of the omicron variant of the coronavirus grows across the country and around the world, New Orleans city officials urged residents and potential visitors to get vaccinated and wear masks, but stopped short of re-imposing the city’s mask mandate or limits on gatherings, during a press conference Monday.

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, echoing statements made by President Joe Biden hours earlier, said the new variant was cause for concern and calculated action — not panic.

“Right now is the time for every New Orleanian to be paying attention,” Cantrell said at the press conference. “Anyone wanting and planning to visit the city of New Orleans, this is the time to get vaccinated. And if you’re vaccinated, now is the time to get a booster shot.”

New Orleans still has one of the most stringent vaccine mandates in the U.S., requiring individuals to present proof that they have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine or a negative coronavirus test before entering most indoor settings. In turn, vaccination rates in Orleans Parish have far outpaced the rest of the state.

Dr. Jennifer Avegno, head of the New Orleans health department, said city health professionals are closely monitoring multiple sources for potential local cases of the omicron variant. As of Monday, no cases had been identified.

Unlike the delta variant, the omicron variant does not require full genetic sequencing to be identified, but can be discerned in some PCR tests, potentially giving public health officials a clearer understanding of the variant’s prevalence in the community.

The omicron variant was first identified in South Africa earlier this month and was labeled a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization last week because of its many mutations.

Biden has restricted travel from several nations in southern Africa, where the omicron variant is particularly common. The variant has driven a surge in cases in South Africa and other countries on the southern portion of the African continent, where vaccination rates are low compared to the United States.

Less than 25% of the South African population is fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Still, epidemiologists worry that the variant’s mutations could enhance its transmissibility and possibly help it circumvent the protection provided by COVID-19 vaccines.

Susan Hassig, infectious disease epidemiologist with Tulane University, said it is particularly worrying that many of those mutations are clustered on or around the virus’s signature spike protein — the mechanism the virus uses to insert itself into cells and is the target of the COVID-19 vaccines.

Hassig said more research is needed to determine if those mutations would significantly reduce the effectiveness of the vaccines, which have been hugely successful in reducing the transmission of the coronavirus and serious illness among vaccinated individuals.

“There are some big gaps in what we know about what this variant can do, because viruses can have lots of mutations, but lots of them may not be functionally important,” Hassig said. “Having so many mutations on that spike protein that is so key in how we have sought to protect ourselves … is concerning.”

Hassig said the public should behave as if the omicron variant is already in Louisiana and has the potential to be as deadly as the variants that came before it. She recommends that people — regardless of their vaccination status — wear masks indoors, stay out of crowded spaces and get vaccinated if they have not already done so.

“Make those kinds of decisions for yourself as opposed to waiting for or depending upon any level of government to make those decisions for you,” Hassig said.

Cantrell said she would “follow the data” when deciding whether or not the city will reimpose its mask mandate and other mitigation measures. But she and city health officials made it clear that while masks are not required, they strongly encourage people to wear them.

“You don’t need a mandate to do this,” Avegno said of indoor mask wearing. “I’ve continued to do this the entire time, it really doesn’t take much, so don’t throw away those masks — now is the time to put them back on.”

But after experiencing one of the deadliest surges this summer due to the delta variant, Hassig said Louisiana is particularly vulnerable.

“This pandemic ebbs and flows in different geographical locations over time, but because we are in a situation with middling vaccination coverage and the tendency not to engage in the other mechanisms of slowing spread and transmission, we’re seeing a whole bunch of parishes turn red with high transmission rates all over again,” Hassig said.

Hassig said the variant will likely be confirmed in Louisiana in the midst of the long-awaited holiday season. She also suspects there will be “incredible social pressure” to gather for the holidays and fears that those gatherings could spur another surge of the virus.

She urged pandemic-weary Louisianans to be cautious.

“I think the bottom line that everyone needs to realize is that there is still the SARS-CoV-2 virus, it’s still transmitted the same basic way,” Hassig said. “So the things that we can do to reduce our exposure to it are the same things we’ve been doing to reduce our exposure to delta, alpha and the original virus.”

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