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New York coronavirus cases hit record high for third straight day as omicron upends holiday plans

Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Dec. 19 that the city is seeing a “very substantial rise in the number of cases” from the variant. (Video: Reuters)

Like many New Yorkers, college student Nadia Wilemski has felt eerily reminded in recent days of the early surge of the coronavirus pandemic.

The vaccinated and boosted 20-year-old waited in a two-hour line in the city to get tested last Monday after coming down with some of the telltale symptoms of the virus. After she learned she was positive, her plans to travel home for the holidays quickly unraveled.

The musical theater student felt exasperated, unable to find a place to isolate when her dorm closed for winter break. Her mind quickly raced back to early 2020, when she felt like “it was the end of the world.”

“It’s giving those same vibes,” Wilemski said.

On Sunday, New York state set a record for the third day in a row with nearly 22,500 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 of the pandemic. The rapidly climbing numbers have sparked concern that the state’s outbreak could be a sign of what’s to come elsewhere.

“We are feeling the omicron wave especially hard right now, but we know it’s going to be all over the country,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) said at a news conference Sunday. He called on President Biden to invoke the Defense Production Act, a wartime law, to provide supplies of testing kits and treatments in New York City and elsewhere in the country.

The worrisome omicron variant “will be defeated, but having enough vaccine when we need it, having enough test kits when we need it, having enough treatment when we need it is key,” he said, amid long lines at testing centers and bare shelves for those seeking at-home testing kits in New York.

In what felt like pandemic deja vu, a steady stream of New York City sites announced they are closing their doors in anticipation of a worsening wave of coronavirus cases. “Saturday Night Live” scrapped its planned show this weekend, sent most of the cast home and canceled musical guest Charli XCX’s performance. Meanwhile, the famed Rockettes dance troupe, which had just returned to the stage, called off the remaining “Christmas Spectacular” shows because of “increasing challenges from the pandemic.”

A number of restaurants and theaters in New York City that rely on big December sales also temporarily closed in recent days. Broadway shows, including the blockbuster “Hamilton” and “Tina,” about the life of Tina Turner, canceled performances. On a smaller scale, friends and families are canceling holiday gatherings.

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.

“Everybody is pretty shaken up,” said Zeba Warsi, a student at Columbia University who was trying to get tested Saturday after coming down with covid-19 symptoms following exposure to someone who tested positive. “We didn’t see it coming.”

“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.

WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said "vaccines alone will not get any country out of this crisis" during a news conference on Dec. 14. (Video: Reuters)

Nonetheless, the latest wave of infections is much different from 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 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 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 (D), who last week reinstated a requirement for masks indoors. However, she added, the state, which has fully vaccinated over 70 percent of its residents, was better placed than it was 21 months ago.

“We have the tools to fight this virus,” she said.

Tracking U.S. covid-19 cases, deaths and other metrics by state

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-disease specialist who also advised 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 three 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.

Pandemic-weary New Yorkers said Dec. 17 they were braving more than hour-long waits to try and get tested for the coronavirus amid the new omicron variant. (Video: Reuters)

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 last 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-result antigen tests, the kind sold over the counter.

Omicron and holidays unleash scramble for coronavirus tests across the U.S.

Warsi, a journalist who reported on the pandemic from India before arriving in New York City in the fall to attend Columbia University, said she went out to dinner with a small group of friends Tuesday. They were all vaccinated, she said, and because it was cold, they ate indoors.

She is not yet eligible for the booster; in India, she said, officials increased the amount of time between the first two doses, meaning she did not get her second shot until fall. A few days after the dinner, she came down with a fever and sore throat.

On Saturday, she was considering which testing facility might offer the shortest wait time. A friend, she said, waited more than two hours outside to get tested. Local pharmacies were out of at-home kits. And she gave up on calling the city’s covid hotline after being placed on hold for 36 minutes.

“The symptoms are pretty mild,” Warsi said. “But it’s the anxiety of not being able to get access to health care in a city like New York.”

Christine Armario and Bryan Pietsch contributed to this report.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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