Gov. Dan McKee said Wednesday that Rhode Island is taking steps to prepare for the arrival of the omicron COVID-19 variant in the state.
The new variant has not been discovered in the state or elsewhere in the United States yet. But there is a widespread belief that it will be here soon.
During a Wednesday morning COVID update, McKee urged Rhode Islanders to keep wearing masks, social distancing and washing their hands to help prevent the spread of the virus.
"Please continue to wear masks inside under certain circumstances, and only about 20% right now of Rhode Islanders report wearing a mask in public where it’s not required," he said.
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McKee also touted the state's high vaccination numbers, but followed up by encouraging citizens to get the vaccine or booster shots.
Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, the state's health director, said the Department of Health has the capability to detect the omicron variant were it to appear in Rhode Island.
"It’s clear that COVID-19 is still very much with us," she said. "We have seen significant increases in the last two weeks in cases, significant increases in percent positivity, and increases in hospital admissions."
Much is still unknown about the new variant, including how contagious it is and whether it can evade vaccines, and the European Union chief acknowledged that waiting for scientists to tell the world more felt like “an eternity.”
Many countries around the world, however, have barred travelers from southern Africa, and the U.S. is moving to toughen testing requirements for international arrivals.
South African researchers alerted the World Health Organization to omicron last week, but it is not known where or when the variant first emerged, and it’s already clear it was circulating in Europe before that alert. But Nigeria stretched the timeline back even further Wednesday, when its national public health institute said it detected the variant in a sample it collected in October — also its first known case of the mutation.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ top infectious disease expert, said much more will be known about omicron in the next several weeks, and “we’ll have a much better picture of what the challenge is ahead of us.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.