Count Gov. Charlie Baker among the public officials who are eagerly awaiting answers to crucial questions about the latest COVID-19 variant and whether it could alter the nature of the pandemic and the public health response.
The omicron variant has not yet been detected in the United States, but it barged into the picture Friday when the World Health Organization declared it a "variant of concern," setting off questions about this strain's transmissibility and potential to evade the protections afforded by vaccines.
President Joe Biden was briefed on the situation while in Nantucket and "decided that we’re going to be cautious," he told reporters outside Nantucket Bookworks on Friday, according to a transcript provided by the White House. He ordered restrictions on travel from South Africa and other African countries, and is planning to provide an update from the White House late Monday morning.
Baker, meanwhile, spent Sunday afternoon at a Menorah lighting event on Boston Common, where he told GBH News that he had been in touch with the White House and expected that more information on omicron and the threat it could pose will become available "relatively quickly."
"There are three big questions," Baker said. "The first is the transmissibility relative to previous variants. The second is the nature of the impact that it has on the people who get infected by it, which is a really important issue and a hard one for people to answer immediately. The third is, what's the likely issue associated with this relative to the vaccines that are already available? And that question, I think, will be answered relatively quickly."
The governor on Sunday urged people who have not yet gotten vaccinated to do so and said people who have been vaccinated should get a booster shot as soon as they are eligible for one.
Baker said he is planning to get his booster shot on Friday. If omicron is shown to be a more difficult variant to contain, it could threaten the state's pandemic recovery efforts.
In the last month, the daily average of new COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts is up about 70%, the state's positive test rate has just about doubled and the average number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients is up 36%.
Last year, when vaccines were not available, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations exploded after Thanksgiving -- with the number of virus patients in hospitals jumping more than 135%, from 986 patients on Thanksgiving to 2,323 patients on New Year's Eve. This year, about 85% of the state's population is at least partially vaccinated against the virus.