COVID-19

NYC Daily Case Average Hits April Levels as Hospitalizations Soar; CDC Issues New Warning

New York and New Jersey have both seen significant growth in COVID hospitalizations in just the last few weeks -- and with the "post-Thanksgiving effect" yet to fully materialize, concerns are mounting

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What to Know

  • The head of the CDC is warning the next few months of the pandemic will be among the "most difficult in the public health history of this nation;' he said total deaths could hit 450K before February
  • Dr. Robert Redfield's concerns don't apply to the school level; he said he was disappointed Mayor Bill de Blasio closed NYC public schools to in-person learning last month, saying they don't fuel virus spread
  • Elementary schools in NYC can reopen Monday with increased testing and de Blasio wants kids to be able to attend five days a week; a number of principals say they just don't have the capacity

New York City's three core indicators are the most aligned they've been in months and all trending in the wrong direction, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday as he more firmly than ever declared "the second wave upon us."

The city's daily case average is on the verge of 2,000 (1,962, by the mayor's data) for the first time since late April, while the seven-day rolling positivity rate has topped 5 percent. It was just two weeks ago that the mayor closed schools to in-person learning because that rate hit his 3 percent threshold. Before the October clusters, it had been around 1 percent for more than a month.

"What we're now seeing more than we have seen in a long long time is these three indicators all moving in the wrong direction, or in the case of daily cases, moving greatly in the wrong direction," de Blasio said.

Citywide hospitalizations are up more than 120 percent over the last three weeks, though the mayor says capacity at hospitals and in ICUs is holding for now. The increases have rendered the current three core indicators much less relevant, with the city exceeding or on the verge of exceeding all three of the mayor's established thresholds. He said the city would devise new information to help people understand what comes next, though didn't elaborate Thursday.

"It's quite clear at this point that this second wave unfortunately is right upon us," de Blasio said Thursday. "We are seeing a different reality for the hospitals for sure than in the spring. The ability of our hospitals to handle this has greatly improved, not as much stress on our ICUs."

Statewide, hospitalizations topped 4,000 Thursday for the first time since May 27 as New York's rolling positivity rate surpassed 4 percent -- another first in months. Gov. Andrew Cuomo triggered emergency hospital protocol earlier this week to shore up the state's capacity in advance of any potential admissions surge.

Even amid the latest crush, intensive care and intubation numbers are nowhere near what they were in the spring, nor are fatalities. New York's COVID death rate for those who went into the hospital in the spring was 23 percent. Now, it's 8 percent, Cuomo said Thursday. Still, the increased spread of a virus with no vaccine widely yet available is problematic for a number of reasons.

Across the river, New Jersey notched another record -- a new single-day case record high of 4,913 diagnoses as the state surpassed 350,000 confirmed cases since March. Hospitalizations and deaths are on the rise there as well. The tri-state predicaments mirror the national climate amid an ever-worsening viral surge with the so-called "post-Thanksgiving effect" yet to fully materialize.

That wave is likely coming, as data showed Americans couldn’t resist the urge to gather for Thanksgiving, driving only slightly less than a year ago and largely ignoring the pleas of public health experts, who begged them to forgo holiday travel.

Vehicle travel surged around the holiday and peaked on Thanksgiving Day at only about 5 percent less than the pandemic-free period in 2019, according to StreetLight Data. Airports also saw some of their busiest days of the pandemic, though air travel was much lower than last year. The Transportation Security Administration screened more than 1 million passengers on four separate days during the Thanksgiving travel period. Since the pandemic gutted travel in March, there has been only one other day when the number of travelers topped a million.

"This pandemic is nowhere near over. We can’t give up the fight now. Mask up. Social distance. Wash your hands," Gov. Phil Murphy said in a tweet. A day before, Murphy said he’s keeping “all options on the table” when it comes to closing parts of the state’s economy again, as he ordered in the spring. He urged people to be especially vigilant with Christmas coming up.

“This is Grinch times 5. Don’t travel,” he said Wednesday, urging people even to keep their distance from Santa. “Santa’s got to wear a face covering; you’ve got to wear a face covering.”

On Thursday, the United States set single-day records for COVID cases, deaths and hospitalizations as the head of the CDC warned the next few months will be among the "most difficult in the public health history of this nation."

Dec. 2 marked COVID-19’s deadliest day in the United States so far. The virus claimed at least 2,777 lives in a single day nationwide, with 100,000 people hospitalized and twice that many testing positive in a single day, breaking a grim record for all three measures.

Dr. Robert Redfield said the country is now in the range of reporting between 1,500 and 2,500 deaths daily and that the numbers will worsen through winter. The numbers are actually worse than Redfield said, with the nation reporting a record number of daily deaths (2,802) on Thursday, after eclipsing 100,000 total COVID hospitalizations for the first time the day before.

"The mortality concerns are real," Redfield said. "I do think unfortunately, before we see February, we could be close to 450,000 Americans [who] have died from this virus."

That's about a 63 percent increase from the world-high death toll the United States currently holds, an unnerving prospect that the White House Task Force underscored earlier this week as it told states "the COVID risk to all Americans is at a historic high."

Some places, though, remain safer than others. Redfield said he was "disappointed" when New York City closed its public schools last month to in-person learning, a move that engineered staunch criticism for Mayor de Blasio among health experts, local politicians and parents alike. The positivity rate within schools has been a negligible fraction of the citywide positivity rate -- and Redfield agreed with others Wednesday when he said schools don't appear to drive spread.

With Thanksgiving in the rearview mirror, fears of a holiday coronavirus surge grow as travelers head home. Children in the largest school district in the country will start heading back to school in a matter of days, Mayor de Blasio announced Sunday. Ida Siegal and Anjali Hemphill report.

The youngest students -- 3-K, pre-K and K-5 -- and special education students will get to return to their buildings in person on Monday, while middle and high school students will have to wait at least into the start of next year. Weekly randomized testing will be mandated for students and staff and students won't be permitted to attend classes the first day unless their parents have signed a consent form.

De Blasio says he wants every elementary school to offer in-classroom learning five days a week -- starting on Monday, if possible. His statement was a lift for parents who do want their children enrolled in person in school full time, though a number have found their schools aren't on the same page as the mayor.

But NBC New York has seen multiple messages from city principals indicating five days a week isn't an option. A note to parents from school administrators at P.S. 20 in Brooklyn, for example, read, "There are no plans to phase out blended learning at P.S. 20 and there are no plans for students to return to 5 day per week/full-time in-person learning at this time." It cited staff limitations.

Asked about the quandary in his briefing Wednesday, de Blasio insisted five days of in-person instruction was a realistic scenario for most New York City schools.

Daily Percentage of Positive Tests by New York Region

Gov. Andrew Cuomo breaks the state into 10 regions for testing purposes and tracks positivity rates to identify potential hotspots. Here's the latest tracking data by region and for the five boroughs. For the latest county-level results statewide, click here

Source: ny.gov

"We are dealing with a policy of NYC and DOE. I don't know what individual principals have said, but we are going to make sure everyone is working from the same playbook," the mayor said. "This is the decision of where we are going. Clearly most schools can get there."

Testing capacity is the primary reason he's able to reopen elementary schools so soon after the latest in-person closure, de Blasio says. The city can process 20,000 days a day alone at what de Blasio calls its first Pandemic Response Lab. He expects up to 100,000 tests a day could be conducted at that facility daily within a matter of weeks, which will support schools' ability to stay open.

On Thursday, de Blasio took the pandemic response lab concept a step further, announcing the establishment of the Pandemic Response Institute at the Alexandria Center to "lead the world and protect us in the future." It will help train and otherwise prepare key personnel to handle the next potential pandemic as well as guide the city through the ongoing one that shows no signs of abating.

The feared surge-upon-surge stemming from the start of the holiday season, though, is likely to continue at least into January, officials have said.

There is help coming on the horizon in the form of vaccines. Gov. Cuomo said Wednesday he expects to receive 170,000 doses of Pfizer's vaccine by Dec. 15 if the pharmaceutical company gets the federal government's OK. New York also expects to get at least 40,000 doses of Moderna's vaccine later this month.

That would be enough to cover the state's roughly 85,000 nursing home residents and 130,000 staff members, though Cuomo said he expects not all residents and staff members will agree to take the vaccine. He continues to work on developing an efficient and equitable rollout plan and outlined the latest efforts Wednesday and doubled on the importance of the plan on Thursday.

"This is the weapon that wins the COVID war," Cuomo said. "Government is going to have to do its part. People are also going to have to do their part; they're going to have to accept this vaccine. People should start focusing on it because it's real and it's here and New York is going to distribute it as fast as it can."

However, there was some discouraging news on the vaccine front from one of the major drug companies. A Wall Street Journal report said Pfizer's current vaccine rollout target is only half of what it originally and privately planned.

The drugmaker publicly said it plans to ship 50 million vaccines by the end of the year, but the Journal reports supply chain problems forced that number down from an original 100 million doses. Pfizer has also said it plans to ship up to 1.3 billion doses by the end of 2021. 

"There are several factors which have impacted the number of doses estimated to be available in 2020," Pfizer said in a statement. "For one, scaling up a vaccine at this pace is unprecedented, and we have made significant progress as we have moved forward in the unknown."

Earlier Thursday, de Blasio said he expected more than 465,500 vaccine doses from Pfizer and Moderna to arrive in New York City this month, also confirming that the first batch is set to arrive Dec. 15. He says he's working with the state to finetune the distribution approach. De Blasio reiterated nursing home personnel and high-risk healthcare workers would receive top priority and said the city's hardest-hit neighborhoods will also be high on the list.

"We are working closely with the state of New York on a distribution plan with an important focus on those who have the greatest need and need to get the vaccine in the first efforts," the mayor said.

New York City is setting up plans to distribute COVID-19 vaccines starting this month, including making sure hospitals have the ultracold freezers needed to store the Pfizer vaccine, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday.

"We're going to work on the fastest and most effective distribution because the faster we can move and the more we can educate people and the more we can get people involved, the more people who will be safe," de Blasio said Thursday.

Temporary vaccination centers are expected to be set up in various locations, including schools, to expedite the process in the first few months. Community outreach will be core to the effort, among other efficacy-driving measures.

"The Health Department itself currently has the ability to receive, store and ship up to 320,000 doses of ultra cold, that's at minus 80 degrees Celsius. As well as millions of frozen vaccines," said NYC Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi. He also added that more than 50 city hospitals either currently have access to ultracold storage or will have ultracold freezers delivered soon, for a total citywide storage capacity of at least 1.5 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine.

New York plans to prioritize nursing home residents and staff members when it begins distributing the first doses of a vaccine for the coronavirus, hopefully this month. NBC New York's Katherine Creag reports.

Even so, the initial doses will just be a drop in the bucket compared with the mammoth task of vaccinating millions upon millions of New Yorkers. Cuomo said an optimistic scenario would get the state at herd immunity levels by June.

Meanwhile, COVID continues to spread rampantly across the country. On Thursday, the U.S. set another new single-day case record as it topped 205,000 for the first time, according to NBC News, breaking the previous record set the prior day. Total cases have surpassed 14 million.

Nearly 37,000 Americans died of COVID-19 in November, the most in any month since the dark early days of the pandemic. To date, the United States has lost almost 275,000, more than any other country in the world. The tri-state area alone has confirmed nearly 50,000 COVID deaths, though thousands upon thousands more are likely attributable to the virus in some way, officials say.

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