On Saturday, New York State set a record for the second day in a row with more than 21,900 reported daily cases, a number not seen even during the grim waves of last winter and spring, according to data analyzed by The Washington Post, although testing was less widely available in the early days. The rapidly climbing numbers have sparked concern the state’s outbreak could be a sign of what’s to come elsewhere.
In what felt like pandemic déjà vu, a steady stream of New York City sites announced they are closing their doors in anticipation of a worsening wave of coronavirus cases. A number of restaurants and theaters in New York City that rely on big December sales also temporarily closed in recent days.
New York was the first center of the pandemic in the United States, and the latest uptick for some brought back memories of March 2020, though hospitalizations and deaths remain far below what they were at previous peaks. Already, though, the surge is upending the cautious return to normality some New Yorkers had begun to embrace.
“This has been a little bit of a rude awakening,” said Alexandra Brodsky, a lawyer who lives in Brooklyn and nixed her first post-pandemic vacation after testing positive.
Nonetheless, the latest wave of infections is much different from the early 2020′s surge, given the arsenal of tools to battle the virus, including vaccines and boosters, experts say.
“We were petrified last year in March,” recalled Mangala Narasimhan, the director of critical care services at Northwell Health, which has 22 hospitals across the state. “We didn’t know if the N95s were going to work. We didn’t even know where to put the patients we had. We had no space.”
Now, Northwell, which has about 400 covid-positive patients in its hospitals, or about half of the admissions this time last year, has therapeutics such as monoclonal antibodies. Patients who are vaccinated are also staying for shorter periods, Narasimhan said. The hospital system, which has not paused its elective surgeries, is encouraging people with health issues unrelated to the virus to get medical help if they need it.
“It’s less scary,” Narasimhan said. “It’s just annoying we’re still dealing with this and annoying that people won’t do the right things so we’re not in this situation.”
Throughout the state, infections and hospitalizations are climbing at a higher rate among the unvaccinated compared with those who are immunized, according to New York Department of Health data as of the end of November. That was also the case at Northwell, where Narasimhan said the hospital system’s covid-19 patients were predominantly from areas with lower vaccination rates such as Staten Island.
The rising coronavirus numbers are a reminder “that the pandemic is not over yet,” said New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, Dem, who this week reinstated a requirement for masks indoors. However, she added, the state, which has fully vaccinated over 70% of its residents, was better placed than it was 21 months ago.
“We have the tools to fight this virus,” she said.
The latest variant has only added to a winter surge in New York City in which the Delta variant had been driving up cases after some summer respite.
Celine Gounder, a New York epidemiologist and infectious-diseases specialist who also advised President Joe Biden’s transition team, said that breakthrough infections will continue to happen but that vaccines are still doing their job to make most cases less severe.
“If all you have is basically a common cold with covid because you’re vaccinated and boosted, that’s a win,” Gounder said.
People who are vaccinated and boosted can still do their part to mitigate transmission, especially in the Omicron-fueled wave, she said, adding that New Yorkers should continue to wear masks, gather in well-ventilated spaces and get tested before spending time with friends and family this holiday season.
There were mounting signs in much of the United States and elsewhere that Omicron is on the rise. In countries with community transmission, the new variant was spreading faster than Delta, with infection numbers doubling in 1½ to 3 days, the World Health Organization said Saturday. Omicron is spreading rapidly in countries with high levels of population immunity, but it remains unclear whether it evades immunity, is more transmissible or both, the health agency said, with clinical severity and vaccine efficacy also not yet known.
Given the new variant and resumption of in-person activities, public health officials have anticipated greater demand for testing. But the country has struggled with its testing supply, a problem that stifled mitigation at the start of the pandemic.
New York City, which announced this week that it would distribute 500,000 at-home tests and expand testing sites, has seen residents waiting in line for hours to get tested. Retailers have reported running low on rapid antigen tests, the rapid-result kind sold over the counter.