Mayor LaToya Cantrell at a press conference on Nov. 29, 2021.

With the recent discovery of the ‘omicron’ variant of COVID-19, which has significant mutations from previous strains, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell told the public it was a “critical time” and urged all residents and visitors to get vaccinated, at a Monday afternoon press conference.

“Right now, is the time for every New Orleanian to be paying attention. Anyone planning and wanting to visit the city of New Orleans, this is the time to get vaccinated,” she said. “We do not have any time to waste.”

Also on Monday, President Joe Biden said the variant was a “cause for concern, not a cause for panic.” Several countries have restricted travel with the rise of the new variant and the first cases in North America were discovered in Canada in recent days.

City Health Director Dr. Jennifer Avegno said the city’s health data continues to be positive and she and Cantrell both touted the city’s health mandates.

“Our rates continue to be significantly lower than the state average,” Avegno said.

Cantrell took time Monday to highlight the Bayou Classic and New Orleans Saints game held in the Superdome over the weekend, where vaccines are required, as reasons for people to continue to get vaccinated and take other precautions.

“Our city was alive. It was a very special moment our city was able to have to demonstrate our progress,” she said. “We do not want to regress.”

The city’s test positivity rate rose above one percent this week, higher than its been since Oct. 1, according to city data. The city is averaging 17 new COVID-19 cases per day. 

Prior to the Thanksgiving holiday, the NOLA Public School district had reported a rise in quarantines to over 400, while cases hovered around 50. As of Friday, the district was tracking a total of 19 “active” cases of COVID-19, four among staff and 15 among students across nine schools. The cases have resulted in 199 individuals in quarantine.

“The latest numbers likely account for many schools being on break for the Thanksgiving holiday, and so they may not be a full representation of the pandemic’s latest impact on our school community,” a district release stated Monday evening.

Avegno said experts still have a lot to learn about the omicron variant but that scientists are learning more every day. She also noted it has many mutations which could make it easier to spread.

“As you know, this past week scientists in South Africa identified a new variant of concern that was later named omicron,” she said, noting the World Health Organization categorized its risk of spreading globally as “very high.”

“As of today, several countries in Europe and Africa have reported cases, both break-through and new cases,” she said. 

“We think we’ll be able to pick up cases of omicron more quickly than we did Delta,” she said.

While South Africa has seen a rise in cases since diagnosing the first omicron cases, Avegno said it wasn’t yet clear if that was due to the variant’s ability to spread quicker or the lower vaccination rate in that country. She said roughly 25 percent of South Africa’s residents are vaccinated. 

In New Orleans, nearly 80 percent of the adult population is fully vaccinated and over 30 percent of children ages 5 to 17 have received their first dose. Pfizer is poised to ask the FDA for approval for booster shots in 16 and 17-year-olds, the Washington Post reported Monday afternoon.

Update: This story was updated with the district’s latest COVID-19 case numbers which were not available at the time of publication.

Marta Jewson

Marta Jewson covers education in New Orleans for The Lens. She began her reporting career covering charter schools for The Lens and helped found the hyperlocal news site Mid-City Messenger. Jewson returned...