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New Jersey Officials Monitoring Omicron Variant, But Say Delta Is Still A Concern As Travel Picks Up

ELIZABETH, N.J. (CBSNewYork) -- New Jersey health officials are closely monitoring the Omicron COVID-19 variant, but they are not yet issuing any new guidelines.

While cases in the state have been on the rise in recent weeks, the Delta variant continues to be the concern. But there is a lab in Nutley that has started to turn its attention to Omicron, CBS2's Jessica Layton reported Monday.

Staring into the face of the pandemic every day, scientist Nancy Zhao helped develop a test at the lab that rapidly detects different variants. Now, that includes Omicron.

"Is that something that's conscious on your minds -- we could very well find this new variant today?" Layton asked.

"I do think about that, especially we know this is a very dangerous variant. It could be very dangerous," Zhao said.

Or at the very least, doctors say, more transmissible because it has so many mutations. Dr. David Perlin is one of the leading researchers at the Center for Discovery and Innovation.

"There may be less activity of some of the vaccines," Perlin said. "That doesn't mean that the vaccines aren't effective. That just may mean we have somewhat less effectiveness."

Omicron hasn't turned up in the samples taken from local infected patients yet. Delta is still dominating the disease. But in other countries, Omicron has shown it spreads rapidly.

Zhao said it's "very possible" that one day Omicron replaces Delta as the dominant variant in our area.

WATCH: CBS2's Dr. Max Gomez Discusses Omicron Variant, Transmissibility And More

Regardless of the strain, the message in New Jersey remains the same, CBS2's Kevin Rincon reported.

"We strongly encourage everyone to keep masking up when you're indoors and distancing is not possible, especially when you're with people whose vaccination status is not clear," said Gov. Phil Murphy.

Things like masks continue to be encouraged, not mandated. Murphy also encouraged vaccines, along with boosters. He got his booster shot over the weekend at Monmouth Medical Center.

"The added protection from a booster is no longer just a bonus, it's a necessity," Murphy said.

So far, New Jersey has fully vaccinated more than 6.1 million people who live, work or study in the state. Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said that will help deal with any new strains that might pop up.

"I encourage everyone not to be hysterical about what we don't know about Omicron, but to be really proactive in controlling what we do know, which is the Delta variant is here, it's with us, it's causing increasing trends," said Persichilli.

The numbers could get worse as foreign travelers are expected to arrive in the Tri-State Area, including at Newark International Airport, over the holidays.

Part of the airport is in Elizabeth, where the mayor is calling for changes.

"I think it would've been prudent to not only test the people that are arriving from South Africa, but anyone who tests positive for whatever variant is automatically quarantined," said Mayor Chris Bollwage.

The mayor said the Port Authority should have a policy in place to ensure travelers are not sick when they arrive.

WATCH: Gov. Phil Murphy Gives Update On New Omicron Variant

Murphy was asked if he'd consider putting a stop to elective surgeries in the event of a surge.

"That would be a pretty draconian step," Murphy said. "I had surgery for cancer, a malignant tumor, and found out later that would have been considered elective, which is not the way I saw it."

The governor said his administration is ready to respond if the facts on the ground and the science change.

CBS2's Jessica Layton and Kevin Rincon contributed to this report.

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