Tuesday marks one year since Queens-based nurse Sandra Lindsay became the first American to take an authorized dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Since then, New York City has dealt with multiple waves, with large numbers of cases but fewer fatalities than its first surge. But the delta variant continues to plague the city, and now, more than a dozen cases of the omicron variant have also been reported in the boroughs.
The city's public health experts say they believe omicron is circulating in communities, and they're working hard to find these highly transmissible infections before they harm people and overburden the health care system. Morning Edition host Michael Hill spoke with Dr. Ted Long, a primary care physician and executive director of the New York City Test & Trace Corps, about how this public health initiative is looking for omicron cases, including those connected to an early outbreak at a Manhattan anime festival linked to a man from Minnesota. Long said his team is ready to tackle the growing surge and any curveballs that omicron throws into the situation.
The transcript below has been lightly edited for clarity.
Michael Hill: What do we know about the Omicron variant in the city? What does the early data show
Dr. Ted Long: So the early data for the omicron variant shows that it is here in New York City. So, we first heard about the omicron case in the gentleman from Minnesota that had spent time at the anime conference on December 2nd. That same day we learned about other cases of omicron —some had traveled, some had not traveled. But we also, through our contact tracing data, had already known about other earlier cases from the same conference that were not linked to widespread transmission.
So on that first day [December 2nd], we were able to tell the New York City public with confidence that omicron was starting to emerge through community spread.
That really makes it more important than ever, as you were saying with this being the one-year anniversary of the first vaccine, to make sure that we continue to get as many New Yorkers vaccinated and boosted as possible because omicron is here. It's not linked to any one person or any one place. We all need to take the protections that we know well how to do in our city.
The New York City anime convention made headlines after several attendees from different states, tested positive for COVID-19. Attendees got calls from Test and Trace in the aftermath of that convention, telling them to get tested and isolated if they feel ill. But would you tell us more about the process of contact tracing a convention with 53,000 attendees? What was that like?
Yeah, that's a great question. So in New York city, we have three strong pillars of our surveillance system. First off, testing gives us the line of sight that we need. Hence why we sent more than 150,000 phone calls, text messages and emails to all the participants in the conference, saying that our strong recommendation was to get tested now. That gives us a line of sight into what happened so that we could do more contact tracing.
The second pillar, of course, is contact tracing. It gives us a very refined sense of what's going on with the virus, how it's being transmitted. The system that we've built is that our contact tracers are all from our hardest-hit communities. They're New Yorkers, and they're here to protect other new Yorkers.
Then the third pillar is our ability to genotype or sequence these infections — to know if a case is caused by the delta variant or the omicron variant. We do that for a random sample of 15% of all cases every week.
Now one thing that's very important to reassure New Yorkers about is that we looked at the list of all the participants in the conference and compared that to all positive tests among all of those participants. And by the time we learned on December 2nd of the first omicron case in Minnesota, we had already interviewed, helped to isolate, confirmed every day that they were still isolating and gotten contacts from 85% of every case that tested positive from the anime conference. That's before we even learned about the Omicron case.
Long story short is that our system is very, very strong in New York City and it works behind the scenes. We're the unsung heroes, but we really are keeping our city safe.
And in light of this new variant, how should we change our behavior, especially with the holidays on the horizon.
Here's what I would say partly in light of the new omicron variant — but largely in light of the well known delta variant — about what people should do in terms of changing our behavior going into the holidays.
First, if you're going to a gathering — even if it's with family members or someone else that you haven't seen in a while — just get tested before you go. My mom was here for Thanksgiving. I got tested the day I was going to see her and was negative. We had a lovely and safe Thanksgiving. I kept my mom safe by getting tested.
Second, if you're going to be traveling, get tested before you go, and then importantly, get tested when you come back. God forbid you picked up one of the variants when you were gone, but just get tested when you come back, so you don't risk infecting your family.
Third, if you're not feeling well, don't go to the gathering. Instead, get tested. You wouldn't want to accidentally make your family sick or essentially infect any friends or loved ones.
It's so easy to get tested in New York City. We're almost on every corner. We'll bring testing to your doorstep if you've been exposed.
So those are three things that if we all do this holiday season, in addition to getting vaccinated and getting boosted, would make a big difference in keeping our cities safe.