BATON ROUGE, La, (KTAL/KMSS) – Gov. John Bel Edwards and Louisiana’s top public health officer shared an update on COVID-19 Friday, urging citizens to prepare for the likely arrival of the omicron variant and to take precautions as the holiday season kicks into high gear.

“We want people to be aware and concerned but certainly not panicked,” Edwards said.

The new strain was identified by the World Health Organization last week as a “variant of concern” and has since been confirmed in at least 36 countries and five states.

“We haven’t yet detected omicron in Louisiana,” Edwards said. “That certainly doesn’t mean it isn’t here.”

The Louisiana Department of Health reported 479 new cases and 12 new deaths on Friday, bringing the total number of cases to 772,789 and the total number of deaths to 14,826.

Edwards said nearly 100 percent of the positive cases currently confirmed in Louisiana are of the delta variety, but the health department has stepped up surveillance measures to detect it as quickly as possible.

“If and when this variant does spread in Louisiana, we’re going to have excellent visibility on that,” said State Health Officer and Medical Director Dr. Joseph Kanter. “We’re paying very close attention to omicron right now.”

In the meantime, Edwards noted, only 49 percent of the state’s population is vaccinated.

“Clearly, that’s not enough.”

Kanter said a lot is still not known about the new variant, but compared omicron to a storm brewing in the Gulf, urging citizens to prepare as they would for a hurricane by getting vaccinated or boosted and taking precautions before the new variant arrives in the state.

“Way, way out in the Gulf,” Dr. Joseph Kanter said, noting the hurricane season is over in three days. “You don’t know what the track’s gonna be. You don’t know exactly where it’s gonna go. You don’t know exactly how strong it’s gonna be when it gets there. But you’re paying attention and you’re probably preparing. Right now, preparing means getting vaccinated. And if you or your loved ones have not gotten boosted and you’re eligible, now is the time to do it.”

State health officials are also suggesting that all international travelers test three to five days after arrival — regardless of vaccination status or recent history of COVID-19 infection.

With just over 200 hospitalizations as of Friday, along with the availability of vaccines and antiviral treatments and therapies, Edwards said he believes the state is in a much better place now than it was at this time last year when there were more than 1,000 in the hospital on Thanksgiving.

Still, Edwards said it’s too early to say to whether new restrictions could be ordered if cases surge again.

“It would be my hope that we would never have to go back. And we’ve said all along, in a public health emergency, you have to do what is necessary so that you can protect public health and if that is every threatened because we were gonna overwhelm our healthcare delivery system, then I think everything is on the table. But we don’t want to go back there, I don’t see that on the horizon today, but I do think it’s just too premature.”