The COVID ‘blizzard’ forecast to hit the US within weeks seems to have arrived in New York early, as the state on Thursday reached a new one-day record 76,555 cases – nearly 10,000 new infections in 24 hours, according to Gov. Kathy Hochul.
And the city braces for a further battering the Omicron variant, urgent care testing sites across the five boroughs have been forced to close due to staffing shortages brought on by the virus, with providers warning more are on the verge of shuttering.
The raging new strain of COVID-19 threatens to over tax the city’s health care system as hospitalizations reach 3,295, nearly 8,000 statewide, and 80 New Yorkers died of the bug since Thursday.
‘We’re heading into a new season, a new year, the kids are going back to school, our hospitals are overstretched,’ Gov. Kathy Hochul said Friday, New Year’s Eve.
‘It’s not a wave like the waves of the past,’ she warned. ‘The numbers do continue to rise…It’s almost not worth it to say we’re breaking records, we’re breaking records every day.’
On the national level, the U.S. smashed another global infection record on Thursday when 647,067 new cases were reported, with deaths halving to 1,400.
November chalked about 2.55 million new cases, USA Today reports, and the US is averaging about 356,000 cases per day – equivalent to four new infections for every second of each day.
Across New York state, however, hospitalization due to COVID-19 infections is bogging down the Empire state’s medical facilities.
‘Our hospitalizations are starting to rise, closing on 8,000, which is not a milestone that we hope to hit,’ Hochul said. ‘Hospitalizations are putting a lot of stress on an overtaxed health care system.’
CityMD, an urgent care chain in the five boroughs, closed 31 of its clinics this week due to staffing shortages brought on by the quickly spreading virus and more closures are expected.
Northwell Health-GoHealth Urgent Care, part of the state’s largest health care operator and the state’s largest employer, was forced to temporarily shutter 10 of its 55 sites, Neal Shipley, the company’s director of emergency care told the Wall Street Journal.
It’s not the flood of infected people at the medical centers that are causing the kink in the system, said Ellen Horwitz, chief executive of the Urgent Care Association, told the newspaper.
‘Staff are sick and have to stay home; that’s the blow we can’t absorb,’ she said. ‘Until this thing peaks and falls we’re going to see more closures.’
New York City once again finds it self as the epicenter of the virus for the U.S. and if the pattern holds from the last two years, the rest of the country will soon be feeling the full brunt of Omicron.
News of the record-smashing new infection rates comes as revelers gear up to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Times Square.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday that he ‘didn’t believe in shutdowns’ and decided the city would host a pared-down version of the celebration.
Only 15,000 masked and vaccinated partiers, who will receive tests before hand, will be allowed to pack into the penned off areas in Midtown that normally see 58,000 people watch the ball drop at midnight.
Mayor-elect Eric Adams, striking a not of ‘hope and renewal,’ he said, will hold his swearing-in ceremony during the event.
The incoming mayor held a press conference on Thursday to announce his plan to tackle the surging wave of infections. He will continue the outgoing mayor’s policy to mandate vaccination for all private sector employees and said booster shots could be part of the requirement.
The health care system isn’t the only part of daily life being hit by the virus.
Holiday travel has been thrown into chaos by Omicron, with 1,198 flights canceled on New Year’s Eve, and another 955 already grounded on Saturday, as airlines grapple with staffing shortages.
JetBlue – which is headquartered in New York City – was the worst-affected airline, canceling 145 flights, equivalent to 14 per cent of its December 31 schedule.
Computer retailer, Apple, has shut all its New York stores due to COVID. Broadway has also been forced to temporarily shut down some of its shows, including Hugh Jackman’s The Music Man, and others, like Waitress and Radio City Music Hall The Rockettes shut down entirely for the season.
‘New Yorkers are not unique in this, we’re being hit very hard, but this is a national phenomenon, a global phenomenon, in fact,’ the New York governor said.
Fifteen states reported a record-high number of average daily infections, according to the CDC. They include Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and Washington, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.
Florida also reported a record 77,848 new cases and 90 more deaths to the Centers for Disease Control on Thursday, following a backlog in reporting, according to an analysis of state data from the Miami Herald.
Michael Osterholm, former Biden transition health advisor and epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, warned that a ‘viral blizzard’ would sweep through the country, grinding daily life and commerce to a virtual halt.
‘We are at the very beginning, unfortunately, and likely have at least four to eight weeks before we’re going to see it rise and then begin to fall again. And during that time, we are going to see COVID activity in this country like we haven’t seen since the beginning of the pandemic,’ Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota, told CBS News.
Omicron can be spread through a ‘whiff of infected breath,’ UK expert says
Professor Peter Openshaw, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group – a sub-committee of SAGE, told BBC Breakfast: ‘Omicron is so infectious’
You only need to be exposed to ‘a whiff of infected breath’ to catch Omicron, one of the UK government’s scientific advisers said on Friday.
Professor Peter Openshaw, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group – a sub-committee of SAGE, told BBC Breakfast: ‘Omicron is so infectious.’
‘It has ended up being so infectious that it almost needs just a whiff of infected breath and you could get infected.’
He added that the UK was lucky that the original strain of Covid, that emerged from Wuhan in early 2020, had not possessed Omicron’s high transmissibility.
‘We’re lucky really that it wasn’t this infectious when it first moved into human-to-human transmission,’ he said.
De Blasio said Thursday that 94 percent of the city’s public workforce is vaccinated. Adams said 72 percent of New Yorkers are fully vaccinated.
‘Ask anyone who works in a hospital and they know that it did not have to be this way, we had more people fully vaccinated do deal with this highly contagious variant known as Omicron,’ Hochul said.
New York has seen 61, 242 COVID related deaths since the beginning of the pandemic out of 3,469,564 total infections, according to the state health department.
The governor suggested that she’s hoping New York follows the trend in South Africa, where the new strain originated.
‘The data from the South African health department showed that they passed their peak, and got a major spike in deaths, and they’re continuing to decline,’ she said. ‘We don’t have a guarantee that this our future, but it sure looks optimistic in terms of how quickly the numbers decline after a major spike which is what we’re going through now.’
About 62 percent of the US is fully vaccinated, with 73 percent having received their first dose, according to the New York Times. And about 68.8 million of the fully vaccinated have also received a third dose, or a booster shot, since August 13, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hochul said that one of the reasons there are some many more new infections recorded.
The governor vowed to get all students, from elementary to college, back to school after the winter break. She will require all state and city college students and faculty to be vaccinated by January 5. Students have to show a negative test to be allowed back on campus and they must be masked in public areas.
Hochul’s Winter Surge Plan 2.0 has two main components: mask and test.
‘This is all geared toward keeping the economy open,’ she said. ‘The other option is: shut it all down.’
Regional strategies may not be enough to tackle the new rapidly spreading variant.
Jeffrey Shaman, an infectious disease modeler and epidemiologist in New York said there must be a global approach.
‘We may find ourselves in a different kind of endemic equilibrium in which boosting is needed every four-six months and highly effective therapeutics are needed to limit severe disease,’ he said. ‘All this would need to be available globally and equitably. This is a daunting prospect. And psychologically challenging.’