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Transcript: Mayor de Blasio, Governor Hochul Update New Yorkers on the Omicron Variant

December 2, 2021

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Mayor Bill de Blasio: Good evening, everyone. A very important moment as we're getting information about the first Omicron variant case here in New York City. Governor Kathy Hochul has joined me here at City Hall, and I'd like to welcome her to offer the first remarks on this development. Governor?

Governor Kathy Hochul: Thank you, Mayor de Blasio for first of all, hosting us here as we make sure that we share information real time with the constituents of our city and our state. Also, I want to make sure everyone understands this is about unity. There's a reason we're here together to signal that this is a challenge that we're going to tackle together. And ensure that everyone knows that we are focused on transparency, which means we will provide information as we get it, as well as a coordinated response from the City and the State to deal with whatever lies ahead.

As I mentioned this morning in my briefing, we still don't have specific information on how the vaccines are holding up, how the boosters are holding up to this variant, but it is real. We said it would be coming here shortly. We announced this morning that a case from Minnesota was directly tied to the City of New York for individuals who participated in a convention at the Javits Center between November 18th and the 22nd. That individual has already recovered from their symptoms. They tested positive but are already feeling well. And it was a very minor case. So, that's something I want to put an exclamation point on. While this may be highly transmissible, at least from the early evidence, and again, more information is still forthcoming. We want people to know that the early cases that have arisen are not life-threatening. They seem to be minor cases. And that is a source of good news for us right now.

But in terms of the information we received, literally, there are five cases identified today in the State of New York. The first one was in Suffolk County. I've been in communication with the County Executive Steve Bellone to alert him. This came out of a lab that is in Suffolk, and it was a 67-year-old female who had symptoms, mild symptoms of a headache and a cough. There is some vaccination history. We don't know if it's one vaccination, two, or a booster shot. And that information will be shared with the public as soon as we receive it. But there's at least one vaccination involved. This is an individual who traveled from South Africa, who tested negative upon returning to the U.S. on 11-25. And on November 30th, they took a point of care test and they did test positive. and Northwell sent the results to the – the individual, to a lab. And that person did test positive. Again, a traveler from South Africa who arrived here and is a Suffolk County resident, a 67-year-old woman. Our second case is Queens based. The vaccination status is unknown to know whether or not this person had been vaccinated or not. Third case, similar situation, no other for further personal details, but the vaccination status is unknown, Queens based. And another case is from Brooklyn, unknown vaccination status. And we just received word of another suspected traveler case here in the city that was identified in the city and in one of the five boroughs.

So, we knew this was coming, Mayor. We talked about this. You and I have been in communication already. No cause for alarm. We just want to make sure that the public is aware of information when we receive it. We don't have more information at this time, but we suspect there'll be more cases emerging. And the best thing that everyone can do is realize we're not defenseless against this variant at all. That vaccine we know is going to ensure that there's less severe symptoms. The booster is something I would highly recommend. If you're not vaccinated, get vaccinated. If you have vaccinations, both series, get the third dose, which is your booster. Ensure that our children are masked up as well as making sure that they get their vaccinations if anyone above five years old. And also recommend that people continue to wear their masks indoors. And when you can avoid large gatherings at this time.

This is not a cause for major alarm. I need to say that because we do not have enough information. We're not having shutdowns. We're not changing our protocols. We are continuing where we are, but making sure that we work in concert together and encourage people to get tested. Get tested often. Get the vaccination. And that again is our best defense. Again, Mayor, I thank you for the continued relationship that we've had since the beginning of my term. Short time, but a lot's been happening and I appreciate your leadership as we work through these issues together.

Mayor: Thank you so much, Governor. And thank you for there's been tremendous communication, you and I directly, but also your team and my team. I want to thank you for that. A very cooperative, collegial atmosphere, a lot of unity of purpose. And I want to say that to all New Yorkers, we are working together to protect you. We have a new situation, but we also know there's a lot of information we do not yet have about Omicron. We know we now have cases here in New York City. We have to assume that means there's community spread. We have to assume that means we're going to see a lot more cases. But we also have tremendous tools as the Governor said. We have a massive vaccination apparatus. And that is by far our best capacity to protect everyone against this variant or any other form of COVID.

So, the message today is let's do the thing we know works with COVID. Let's get vaccinated. To all the parents out there of the youngest New Yorkers who have not yet gotten your kids vaccinated, the five to 11-year-olds, we need you to get your kids vaccinated right away. To everyone who qualifies for a booster and has not yet gotten it, we need you to do that, to protect yourself and your family and everyone in this city. We know vaccination works. It limits the impact. We know this. It limits the impact of COVID. It helps reduce the spread of COVID. We need that more than ever. We are going to keep the public informed. Governor's made a commitment. I make the same commitment to transparency. We'll be constantly updating the public, but as the Governor said right now, the good news is there's a very strong health care team for the City and the State working to protect you. And that will be every single hour of every single day.

As for what we learned about this conference at the Javits Center and these additional cases, our Test and Trace team is out there immediately working with each individual who was affected to figure out who else they came in contact with. That contact tracing is absolutely crucial. We have the strongest test and trace team in America. Thousands of extraordinary, extraordinary committed individuals out there protecting you. They're going to make sure we identify who needs any support, anything in the way of medical support, quarantining, et cetera. Also, we're going to use every tool at our disposal. Earlier in the week, we announced a vaccine mandate for childcare employees, about 102,000 childcare employees. Earlier today, a vaccine mandate for employees of non-public schools. That's about 56,000 additional employees. Both of those go into effect December 20. There will be more new initiatives coming to protect people.

The bottom line is we're going to use every tool at our disposal, our health care team and Commissioner Dave Chokshi is here with us for answering of questions. Everyone is committed to protecting all New Yorkers. And City and State working together in unity to get this done. With that, we'll take some questions stating the obvious, this is an urgent moment, on topic only. We welcome questions now from the media.

Moderator: We'll now begin our Q-and-A. As a reminder, we're also joined by Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi. The first question today. It goes to Emma Fitzsimmons from the New York Times.

Question: Hi, good evening. So, can you tell us all five cases here are believed to be mild and only in the first case, do we know that the person received at least one dose of the vaccine?

Governor Hochul: Yes. We only know –

Mayor: Governor and then Dr. Chokshi. Go ahead.

Governor Hochul: Yes, with respect to the information we just received from the labs, which is literally what's happened within the last hour. We only know that one person has been vaccinated for sure. And that is the individual from Suffolk County. So, that status is not determined. We expect to know it soon. And the symptoms were very mild. And again, we don't have a lot of cases to compare this to, but the individual from Minnesota, the first case that we spoke about today, again, mild symptoms, they recovered at home. And that is why we have to realize that this is actually the fifth variant. I thought it was the fourth, but we added up. It's the fifth variant. The Delta one that is still pervasive, we've had over 7,000 cases over the seven-day average. 5,300 cases statewide just yesterday from the Delta alone. And we don't know whether this is going to exceed that or replace the Delta variant as the number one cause of people becoming contracting COVID. So more information to follow, but we don't know the vaccination status of anyone other than the first one.

Mayor: As I turn to Dr. Chokshi, just emphasizing the Governor's point. We do have a new challenge, but we have a much bigger current challenge with the Delta variant and driving a lot of real profound impact on families all over the City, State, and nation. So, I just want to emphasize to everyone, job one is still dealing with the Delta variant. Dr. Chokshi, anything to add on the cases so far?

Commissioner Dave Chokshi, Department of Health and Mental Hygiene: Just briefly sir, the Governor and the Mayor are exactly right. With those five cases, we are still gathering all of the details. We know that one of the five as the Governor said is vaccinated. It's very possible that others will also be vaccinated, but it gives us a chance to reinforce, it's so important if you're not, if you or your child are not vaccinated yet, get vaccinated. If you are, and you're an adult, get your booster dose.

Mayor: Emma, do you have a follow-up? If not, let's go to the next question. 

Moderator: As a reminder, we're also joined by the Test and Trace Director, Dr. Ted Long. Next question goes to Jimmy Vielkind from the Wall Street Journal. 

Question: Can you hear me? 

Mayor: There you go. Yes, we can. Tape delay. Yes, we can. 

Question: Hi. So, other than getting vaccinated – my first question is, other than getting vaccinated or boosted, if you haven't already, what adjustments to behavior, if any, are you recommending to New Yorkers?  

Mayor: Governor, would you like to start? 

Governor Hochul: We're encouraging indoor mask use, for sure. That is another way that people can have that extra layer of protection. But again, the boosters and the vaccination are the primary way to protect themselves. We don't have any evidence of other variant – another variation of this that require a different reaction. For example, if you remember in the early months of the first pandemic, the first variant, COVID initially, people thought that it was transmitted by surfaces. And so, it was all about making sure that we cleaned our hands and took other precautions. So, we're learning more information. We'll get all that out. But, right now, it's exhibiting the same kind of traits that other variants have had. So, we believe that the booster and the vaccination are the way to go, but we highly encourage them to wear their masks indoors. 

Mayor: Yeah. And, Jimmy, just quickly to say, the Governor and I are constantly reminding people how important is to get vaccinated. I want to say, particularly with the holiday gatherings coming up, with travel coming – anyone who's thinking of traveling on a plane, on a train, anywhere around other travelers, get vaccinated. It's more urgent than ever to do that. Dr. Chokshi, do you want to add? 

Commissioner Chokshi: Thank you, sir. Vaccination is the single most intervention, as has already been described. Beyond that, masking and testing are important. Masking, particularly indoors. And testing is important, particularly around travel or gatherings. Beyond that, there are common sense precautions that we have seen have worked over the past two years. Stay home if you're not feeling well. And that includes mild symptoms. And if that's the case, get tested and then come back home. And then, hand washing, particularly important right now as well. We have to deploy all of those tools together, but it starts on the foundation of vaccination. New York City is in a good place, but we have to drive it even further. 

Question: And then – thank you. As a follow-up, do we have any knowledge as to whether these five cases were related? It sounds like the Suffolk County – is not to – the people who attended the anime convention. And of those 53,000 people, do you have any sense of how many of them were either state or city residents? 

Mayor: I'll start with the Governor, and then I'll see – we're also joined by Ted Long, who runs our Test and Trace initiative. He may have additional information. But, Governor – 

Governor Hochul: The contract tracing just began today. We literally received this information about the people gathering at that convention from November 18th [inaudible]. So, it's too early in the process to be able to identify who have been residents. But in terms of these five cases, again, Suffolk County, as you mentioned is a further out. I don't know that these people are in contact with each other or not. We don't have evidence either way. However, we also know that there's two people from Queens. We don't know even whether they're in the same household or the same neighborhood. And someone else from Brooklyn, and one where it's not been identified. So, we'll be happy to provide that information the second we receive it. That's we want, to let the media know and the public know that we're providing information as we learn it so people can take precautions. And if they believe they've been exposed or want to take a test just to be sure, the good news is that the White House today answered our requests, which we've had in place for a long time to make sure that private insurance companies will now cover your over-the-counter test kits, the antigen test kits. So, those are on shelves right now. I encourage people to also make sure that they have those available. If they just have this anxious feeling or the sense, I want to know for sure that I don't have the variant, or Delta, or whatever else they may have. We want to make sure that people know that these are now covered by the insurance providers. 

Mayor: Thank you. Dr. Long, do you want to add on the tracing of the cases so far? 

Executive Director Ted Long, NYC Test and Trace: Yes, sir. Thank you. So, I really appreciate that question. As the Governor Hochul said, we're learning about these cases in real time now. The first case, which we were just looking into right before this press conference, was actually an individual that already completed our contact tracing intake and we were able to offer that individual resources, and we confirmed with the individual every day as part of our usual monitoring that they are appropriately isolated at home and, therefore, not risking their friends, family members, or other New Yorkers. We're going to be able to do that same process for all of the cases as they come in and setting up different chains of transmission to make sure that we're able to break chains if we see any connections to things like events. I also just want to really emphasize something that has been said here, which is that in New York City we've worked really hard for this day to build up a testing structure that has ample capacity to offer everybody testing. This week and last week on an individual – on individual days, we [inaudible] 100,000 tests in a given day and the median lab turnaround time is one day, 24-hours in New York City. So, if you're sick, or if you're going to a gathering, or if you've been traveling, come out, get tested now. Or, in New York City, if you're a close contact, a traveler over 65, or immunocompromised call 212-COVID-19, and you don't even have to come out to get tested. We'll bring testing to your door, into your house, and testing for free in your home. 

Mayor: Thank you very much. Go ahead.  

Moderator: Next is Steve Burns from WCBS 880.  

Question: Hi, Mayor and Governor. I appreciate you doing this. I'm sure a lot of folks are feeling some amount of deja vu here to March 2020, when we were talking about, you know, a few cases here or there. Obviously, the problem back then turned out to be much more widespread than we knew. So, should we assume there are more than five Omicron cases in New York State at this point? And, if so, why are we not seeing more proactive moves in terms of mask mandates, crowd gathering limits, things like that? 

Mayor: Steve, I just want to say – I'll turn to the Governor, but just say it's a very different world, thank God, than 2020. Our hospitals have so much more ability to deal with the challenge than they did then, have much better treatments available, and we have a huge number of people vaccinated. It really is night and day. But I think there's no lack of urgency. Everyone understands we're going to throw everything we’ve got at this new challenge. We need to know more about it. But, right now, what we do know is, get people vaccinated, encourage mask use, encourage testing, and we're going to be doing that in a very, very aggressive fashion. Governor? 

Governor Hochul: That's a good question, but I want to do remind people that this is not March 2020. We have learned an enormous amount over the last 20 months – how this transmits, how we can deal with it. But also, we weren't even close to having a vaccination. In fact, at the time, if you recall, we were told it would take minimum of two to three years to have a vaccine available. And the miracle of modern science and the hard work by many people in pharmaceutical companies and Washington D.C., they were able to within nine months have a vaccine available to our most vulnerable in nursing homes and our senior citizens. So, that – vaccination was and continues to be the game changer, the great differential. So, people should not panic that this is going to be repeat of what happened before. Again, we don't know this – whether this is going to be like the Delta variant, which has caused some hospitalizations, or one of the earlier variants, which never really materialized to be a serious threat whatsoever. We are taking this extremely seriously from the public health perspective. That's why you see this coordinated effort, and the contact tracing, make sure there's testing available, that there's no shortage of vaccinations. I was in the White House yesterday, talking about how I want to make sure that we have ample supply of vaccines going out to all the pharmacies. That's a direct line from the federal government to the pharmacies. The President's addressed that today was his winter response. So, we feel good about this, but we're not complacent. We're not sitting back and saying, we're fine. We're saying that we have so much available to us that we're ready to deploy. And with respect to our real concern, back then and even now, it is overcrowding of hospitals, to make sure that we always have enough capacity for someone who either has COVID and needs additional care, medical care, or someone who has a heart attack or an illness, that they have all the medical care they need. And that is why less than one week ago I instituted an emergency order for the State of New York, which gives me the resources to deploy the National Guard where we may have shortages in staffing, and as well as deploy people elsewhere within our State system of health care areas that are doing well, that we send staff, medical staff, particularly nurses to those hospitals that have less than 10 percent of individuals – less than 10 percent bed capacity. We also stopped elective surgeries in those areas of vulnerability. And it's something that we can even expand those capabilities. So, yes, I agree with the Mayor 100 percent, we are in a far better place. The people are informed. There's not a panic. We're not trying to instill that. We're just trying to let people know we've got this, have confidence in what we're able to do because it's a different world right now. It is still a public health crisis, but does not have to be a crisis that leads to the shutdowns – and we did not have information, and we did not have a vaccine, and we did not have the tracing and tools at our disposal right now. That is the difference between now and then. 

Mayor: Amen. And, Steve, look, anyone out there who's feeling urgency at this moment, there's something you can do. If you haven't gotten the booster, go get it. If your child's not vaccinated, get them vaccine. I mean, this is something where we need everyone to participate. And there's a lot of people who still need to come forward and help us get the job done. So, we have the tools like never before. And the vast majority of New Yorkers are responding, but there's still folks who can come out, get vaccinated, help us protect against this challenge. Steve, do you have a follow-up? 

Question: I do. Thank you. I wanted to see from the Governor's perspective if this changes your calculus at all on vaccination mandates, especially when we see, you mentioned the other day, such a stark disparity in terms of the problem spots upstate versus in New York City. Would you at all be looking at emulating what Mayor de Blasio has done in terms of a mandate for employees or something like the Key to NYC to go to restaurants or theaters or things like that. Does this at all change your calculus on vaccination mandates? 

Governor Hochul: It also comes down to compliance. And I'm aware of the tools we have at our disposal. We have had even pushback with respect to our initial vaccine mandate, which was to all health care workers receive a vaccine. I'm pleased that we have now 100 percent of health care workers who are working in nursing homes and in hospitals vaccinated. But that resulted in a loss of, literally, thousands of workers that we needed, which is why we have a situation now – one of the reasons we have a situation now to backfill those. So, I know all the tools we have at our disposal. If we learn more about this variant, that it's different than we have – we don't have enough information right now, but those are issues that I can trigger instantly. I can change the dynamic with the directive instantly, depending on the circumstances. So, again, I don't want to overreact to this. The City of New York is different in that – the density, and how people work, and how they traveled together. Sidewalks are crowded. The subways are crowded. The public housing, in particular, and all the apartments are crowded, dense places and there's much more opportunity for transmissibility than we see elsewhere. That is a factor to take into consideration. The New York State workforce has a vaccinate or tests to return to work situation now. And it's working very well. Our numbers of testing positive rates are very low. So, I put this on the table of issues that we have able to address, go further. But I don't know enough about this variant. We're not going to overreact, but I can react that quickly if we need to. 

Mayor: Go ahead.  

Moderator: Last question for today, it goes to Michelle Price from the AP. 

Question: Thank you, Governor and Mayor. I'm wondering, do we know do any of these five cases move back the date that this variant may have been in New York? Do we know the earliest it may have been here? 

Mayor: Do you have details about – 

Governor Hochul: Well, our case from Suffolk County looks like they tested positive on November 30th. November 30th was the date they tested positive at a lab in Suffolk County. And my understanding is that, you know, Wadsworth Lab up in Albany, has been looking for these variants and looking to identify if it came through. And this lab sent the results and now we have confirmation that it was November 30th. 

Mayor: Yeah. Michelle, I'm going to add, and turn to Dr. Chokshi real quick. I mean, we keep learning, we learned this in the beginning of COVID that a certain amount of spread can happen that it isn't even picked up by the most careful testing. So, I just now want people to understand, we're assuming in New York City there is community spread at this point. We have to. That's the only way to approach this to protect everyone. We see a handful of cases, we’ve got to assume there's a lot more behind that and that it has been here for a meaningful amount of time. Dr. Chokshi, do you want to add? 

Commissioner Chokshi: Thank you, sir. You started you covered the most important point, which is how we should interpret it in the here and now, which is that the Omicron variant is here in New York City and in New York State, as the Governor has mentioned, and that we are in a situation where there's community spread. This is not just due to people who are traveling to Southern Africa, or to other parts of the world where Omicron has already been identified. So, that's the most important sort of epidemiologic takeaway that we want to convey. In terms of the dates, you know, between the exposure that we know that happened from the Minnesota case, as well as some of the cases that are coming to light today, it appears that late November is the date that we can say, you know, with certainty. And we expect that, you know, additional cases will be found as well. Remember that sequencing, which is the specialized genetic testing that is done to identify different types of variants, this often takes several days for the machines to actually process that test. So, the initial PCR test will be several days before we actually get the sequencing results. And the Governor and the Mayor decided to communicate this, because we received all of those suite sequencing results today. And, in some cases, just minutes ago. 

Mayor: Thank you. Go ahead, Michelle. Do you want to follow up? 

Question: I guess, I just wanted to ask about the sequencing. To clarify, is this every PCR test, does it undergo the gene sequencing? 

Commissioner Chokshi: The answer is no. There is a subset of PCR tests that undergo sequencing. It depends a little bit, depending on the jurisdiction. For New York City, I can tell you we're sequencing about 15 percent of all tests, which is a very good proportion for us to be able to pick up these trends over time.

Mayor: I want give the Governor last word, but say thank you Governor for, again, the partnership, the communication. And I know you are truly committed to transparency, and that's what the public deserves, and welcome you to finish this up. 

Governor Hochul: Thank you, Mayor. I do appreciate that. And having the synergy between your health team and our health team should give New Yorkers confidence that the brightest people in this country and perhaps on this planet are working together to make sure that we keep New Yorkers safe. We'll continue to do that. And I look forward to working with you as we share information when we receive it, offer new strategies, anything that's going to be evolving or changing with respect to our approach to this. We'll certainly make sure the public knows. But, right now, we don't have a lot of information, but, again, just wanted to share this with the public. And I thank you for your cooperation as well. 

Mayor: Thank you. Thank you, everybody. 



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