TRENTON, N.J. - President Joe Biden said sooner or later, he expects to see the omicron variant in the United States. This message comes as public health officials at the state and federal level admit there are more questions than answers about this variant of COVID-19.
"The world's attention is focused on the omicron variant that was identified by doctors in South Africa," said New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy. "The reality is our region is a hub of international travel and commerce. We must be ready now in anticipation of this variant hitting us."
Murphy and Biden stressed Monday omicron should be a cause for concern, not panic.
Biden says he restricted travel in countries in southern Africa "to give us time to get people to get protection, to be vaccinated and get the booster."
Some are confused by the influx of attention on this variant, given that some South African doctors have reported to media that the majority of cases they're seeing only have mild symptoms.
"The reports of milder illness with this omicron are anecdotal right now," said New Jersey's State Epidemiologist Dr. Christina Tan. "We're still in the process of understanding the scope of illness that omicron can cause."
Tan says this variant's number of mutations and types of mutations stand out, and whether they impact immune response, vaccine efficacy and transmissibility is being researched.
"Dr. Fauci believes that the current vaccines provide at least some protection against the new variant," said Biden. "My team is already working with Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson to develop contingency plans for vaccines or boosters if needed."
"Fortunately for us, the PCRs that we mostly use would pick up this very unusual variant that has a really large constellation of mutations," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the president and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
Public health officials are recommending everyone keep a mask on indoors in public settings.
"If you and your family are fully vaccinated, you can celebrate the holidays much more safely," said Biden. "I know you're tired of hearing me say this...the best protection against this new variant or any of the variants out there...is getting fully vaccinated and getting a booster shot."
Biden says he will release Thursday a detailed description on how America will continue to fight coronavirus this winter. He says that won't include closures, but rather information about vaccines, boosters, and testing.
"If people are vaccinated and wear their mask, there is no need for a lockdown," said Biden.
Pennsylvania's Department of Health told 69 News it too will continue to use vaccinations as its primary mitigation strategy.
"While there has not been any omicron variant cases detected in Pennsylvania at this time, the Department of Health continues to sequence specimens and collect sequencing results from other labs to understand how the variants are affecting our communities," the Pennsylvania Department of Health told WFMZ in a statement.
COVID hospitalizations, many still from the delta variant, have risen in both New Jersey and Pennsylvania over the last couple of weeks.
"I expect the new normal to be everyone ends up getting vaccinated and the booster shot so we reduce the number of people who are unprotected to such a low degree that we're not seeing the spread of this virus," said Biden.