What to Know
- New York and New Jersey are detecting the omicron variant at a much higher rate (13%) than the U.S. average (3%), the CDC says; the vast majority of new cases are delta, but that may soon change
- While the severe cases are linked to the delta variant, omicron is believed to be fueling a nationwide increase in infections and appears to be more evasive when it comes to existing vaccines
- NY is among a growing list of states adopting strict measures to curb omicron's spread -- and the ongoing threat posed by delta -- as it faces its worst across-the-board COVID surge in more than half a year
The highly infectious omicron variant is rapidly increasing prevalence across the U.S. but even more so in New York and New Jersey, where genomic sequencing is detecting it at a rate of about 13% versus 3% nationally, the head of the CDC says.
Delta, which early evidence indicates appears to lead to more severe cases than the new variant that first emerged in South Africa, remains America's predominant strain (96.7% of all sequenced positive COVID samples) and is fueling the nationwide hospitalization spike, Dr. Rochelle Walensky said on "Today" Tuesday.
But omicron could overtake delta before long, just as the latter overwhelmed alpha this past spring, Walensky said. It already accounts for 3% of all U.S. cases tested.
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The good news, Walensky says, is that early data shows omicron "is demonstrating some decreased severity, shorter lengths of stay, fewer people on oxygen, fewer people in the ICU." Even better, "We have the tools now," the head of the CDC said.
That said, Walensky acknowledged that even if omicron proves to be less severe, "you still have a lot of people who are getting sick," and some of the most vulnerable people could experience severe COVID-related illness or death. The alarming spread rate of omicron makes vaccinations all the more crucial, she said.
Pfizer released data Tuesday showing its vaccine is 70% effective at preventing omicron-associated hospitalizations but just 33% effective in preventing new infections -- a concerning statistic particularly for parents of younger kids who only recently became eligible for vaccination and have a much lower full protection rate than adults. More insight on Moderna's effectiveness is expected this week.
Nationally, 9.6% of kids aged 5 to 11 are fully vaccinated, CDC data shows. More than 52% of the next youngest group (aged 12-17) can say the same.
New York state and city both boast higher full vaccination rates for the youngest eligible. Almost 12% of kids aged 5 to 11 are fully vaccinated statewide, while New York City, the one-time epicenter of the U.S. COVID outbreak, has a 22.3% full vaccination rate for that age group.
Walensky said Tuesday that while the definition of "fully vaccinated" isn't expected to change, meaning a booster wouldn't be added to the definition, the vast number of mutations associated with omicron means, "We want to make sure we have as much immune protection as possible." That's why boosters are crucial, she said.
To date, omicron has been detected in 33 U.S. states and 77 countries worldwide.
"It is more transmissible, and we're seeing that in other countries as well, that it's rapidly becoming the predominant strain," Walensky said, noting the vast majority of America's some 120,000 new cases a day are still delta.
"The science is still evolving, it's still early, but what we’re seeing in some of these countries is doubling times of about every two days or so -- so a really rapid increase in the amount of omicron that’s out there," she added.
More data is needed to determine whether omicron is more vaccine evasive than earlier strains but the limited research available to this point suggests it could be.
The CDC said last week that of the 40-plus U.S. people who have been found to be infected with omicron so far, more than 75% of them were vaccinated. Breakthrough infections have been rising in New York since early November, though still account for a fraction of new infections compared with the non-vaccinated.
New York is among a growing list of U.S. states adopting intense measures to curb omicron's spread -- and the ongoing threat posed by delta -- as it faces its worst COVID surge in cases, hospitalizations and deaths in more than half a year.
A new statewide mask mandate ordered by Gov. Kathy Hochul took effect Monday, requiring face coverings to be worn in all indoor public places where vaccination proof is not required. That mandate will be in effect at least through Jan. 15.
Noncompliance comes with fines of up to $1,000 per violation. Local health departments are tasked with enforcing the Democrat's order, though not all appear inclined to play ball at this point. Some question the supporting data, while others say they weren't provided enough details on the requirement itself.
Hochul's health commissioner in issuing the determination order required to implement the mandate cited in part data that shows mask use is linked to a roughly 70% reduced risk of COVID infection. The governor insists now is the time to start maximizing tools to reduce risk and calls her order a preemptive strike.
Also acting preemptively is New York City. A new proof-of-vaccination requirement for kids aged 5 to 11 to enter restaurants or indoor venues or participate in high-risk extracurriculars took effect Tuesday. Those kids only need to show proof of one vaccine dose. Starting on Dec. 27, kids age 12 to 17 will need to show proof of two.
That same day, Mayor Bill de Blasio's strictest-in-the-nation vaccine mandate takes effect. It's the first to cover an entire private-sector workforce. The mayor is expected to release additional guidance for businesses regarding that Wednesday.
While he has encountered more than a bit of backlash over that looming order, de Blasio says the trend lines with cases and hospitalizations necessitate it.
"You're seeing the trend lines with cases going up, hospitalizations going up, so we need to attack on all fronts," the mayor said. "We're doing a preemptive strike, putting extremely strong measures in place to stop us from ending up where we did in 2020 with shutdowns and restrictions. We can see the handwriting on the wall."
What remains unclear is how long that mandate will last. It takes effect four days before Mayor-Elect Eric Adams is sworn into office. He has said he'll review the policy with his team and make his own decision on whether to adopt it.