Omicron is here. Thursday evening, New York officials announced that they had detected five cases of the omicron variant in New York State.

One is a 67-year-old woman in Suffolk County with some vaccination history, but it's unclear if she was fully inoculated or boosted. Two were found in people in Queens, one in a person in Brooklyn and the other case is someone in an unreported location in New York City. Their vaccine statuses and current symptoms weren't provided by Governor Kathy Hochul and Mayor Bill de Blasio, who announced all of these findings at a joint briefing yesterday evening.

Much of what they said came as no surprise, as health experts have widely anticipated that omicron would arrive in the United States and spread through local communities. But what does it all mean for New Yorkers, as they enjoy the winter holidays? Many were just getting adjusted to at least a partial return to public life, but cases and hospitalizations are surging due to the delta variant, which has been the globally dominant COVID scourge since this spring.

A lot is still unknown about how and if the omicron variant will alter the course of the pandemic. Morning Edition host Michael Hill spoke with Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist at NYU and Bellevue Hospital.

Their interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

So, all the experts said this was coming, and while I'm sure some of us are having flashbacks to the anxiety we felt back in March of 2020, both Gov. Hochul and Mayor de Blasio say not to panic and that we're in a much different place now than we were back then.

No doubt we are. I ask you this: How and to what degree?

We are in a very different place now because we understand how the virus is transmitted. And we understand how to prevent transmission of the virus and protect ourselves. We know that we don't need to resort to lockdowns. We know what works.

This virus is an airborne virus. It is transmitted through the air, which means things like masking, ventilation, air filtration, HEPA air filtration units you can buy and put in the home — all of those things work. We also now have rapid tests that are becoming increasingly available, and the Biden administration announced yesterday that the purchase of rapid tests for use in the home will be reimbursable by insurance.

They will be distributing rapid antigen tests through community health centers and food banks for people who are not insured. Then, of course, vaccination and boosting will protect you. We didn't have all of those tools in March of 2020. We have all of those tools now, and we should be using them to their fullest.

The governor, the mayor and health officials are all emphasizing the importance of getting vaccinated. That message is clear, particularly with the arrival of Omicron, but doctors and researchers are also saying that one of the most concerning things about this variant is its potential ability to evade antibodies.

How confident are you that our current vaccines will protect us?

This is a real concern, and I'll be honest — I was not convinced about the data on boosters prior to the emergence of omicron. The data was very strong for the elderly, for people who are immunocompromised and people living in nursing homes.

But I think the emergence of the omicron variant really changes that calculation. What we're seeing is that if you do give an extra boost of a vaccine — and given what we saw with a prior immune-evading variant, the beta variant —is that you could overcome that resistance to the vaccine, that immune evasion. And so that's why I am now advocating — and many of us are advocating — that not only you should be fully vaccinated but also get that additional dose of vaccine. It will help overcome any issues specific to over to the omicron variant.

What about people who are unvaccinated but have previously recovered from an infection. Would their so-called natural immunity be enough to fight omicron?

Yeah, the answer to that is no. And in fact, one of the reasons the World Health Organization declared omicron a variant of concern is because of seeing evidence about people in South Africa who had previously been infected. Just to give you some context: in Johannesburg, between 60% and 80% of people there have been infected.

You really do need to get vaccinated.
Dr. Celine Gounder, NYU and Bellevue Hospital.

Despite those very high infection rates, they saw people getting reinfected with omicron. So please do not count on so-called natural immunity to protect you from omicron. You really do need to get vaccinated here.

Many of us were getting adjusted to at least a partial return to public life. The city's vaccine passport requirement called for at least one vaccine dose to eat in a restaurant, drink at a bar, see a performance or visit a museum.

Are those activities now riskier?

I think they certainly are. I have been advocating with the health commissioner that we should tighten up the requirements for dining in a restaurant, for going to bars, gyms — to require the full two doses of vaccination in the case of the mRNA vaccines [such as Pfizer and Moderna].

I think people should go back to wearing a mask when they're out in public indoors. That is really one of the most important things you could be doing right now, in addition to getting vaccinated and boosted.

Do you think boosters will eventually be required for these activities?

Whether boosters will be mandated or count towards full vaccination — that requirement is really unclear right now. I think there's a lot we're still trying to sort out. I think that will depend on how the pandemic evolves and what we discover with the science. It may be that we still require two doses, but that the timing is slightly different. That's a longer-term area of scientific research.

We know that the Delta variant and infections have been rising across the state, and there has been some concern about hospital capacity.

How concerned are you about hospital capacity right now, given omicron?

I am concerned. I am more concerned about the delta variant, frankly. As we were going into the Thanksgiving holiday, we were heading into a surge, and that has not changed. Most of the transmission in this country is still related to Delta, and Delta is still a highly infectious form of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Unfortunately, at the same time that we're heading into the surge, we're also heading into our winter holidays. People are kind of fed up with all of the things we've been asking them to do, and unfortunately, have become complacent about all of those things — the mask wearing, the socializing outdoors, the opening doors and windows, the HEPA air filtration units, the rapid testing.

All of that, I know, to a lot of people sounds exhausting, but unfortunately, the timing is the worst possible timing for that because we are seeing an increase in cases, and we are seeing an increase in hospitalizations.