What to Know
- The delta variant has been found in 72% of positive NYC samples studied, up from 57% in the health department's last report
- That strain is now the dominant one in New Jersey as well
- Existing vaccines have proven effective protection against the variant; virtually all new COVID deaths and hospitalizations are among unvaccinated people, officials at all levels of government say
The highly transmissible delta variant continues its surge in New York City unabated, now accounting 72% of all positive samples -- roughly triple where it was three weeks ago.
At the same time, virtually every important infection metric in the city is getting worse too, with daily confirmed and probable cases 24 percent higher than they were a week earlier.
An unreleased CDC presentation, obtained by NBC News, underlines the rising severity of the situation -- an estimated 35,000 symptomatic infections a week nationwide among those who are already fully vaccinated.
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(Even so, the unvaccinated are still eight times more likely to get infected, and 25 times more likely to be hospitalized or die, the CDC said.)
New mask mandates are on the table, as are mandatory vaccinations or testing for public employees. But even as Gov. Andrew Cuomo urges businesses to reopen their offices, federal officials are warning that the delta variant is a new beast -- potentially more contagious than the common cold.
Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to make an announcement Monday on a possible mask mandate. On Friday, he appeared on CNN to discuss vaccine efforts and the city's response to the rising spread of delta.
"We will address masks. We will, but we have to make sure everything we do supports vaccination. Yeah, you can do more than one thing, but you better make sure the two things support each other, especially the most important piece, which is by far vaccination," the mayor said.
"I keep saying we're climbing the ladder in terms of more and more mandates, tougher and tougher measures to make sure that people are vaccinated. What's going to happen, bluntly, is that folks who are vaccinated are going to be able to experience all the things that they love in the life of this city, in this country. And folks who are not vaccinated are going to find that too many things that they want to do, they can't do unless they are vaccinated," he added.
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As of Friday, the delta variant that first devastated India before spreading globally -- and is thought to be up to far more contagious than that first widely tracked alpha variant -- accounts for 72% of citywide samples tested in the last four weeks, according to the latest weekly data from the city's health department.
It took only 14 days for delta to vault from the fourth most common COVID strain in the city to the first, overtaking first the so-called New York City strain that initially emerged in Washington Heights before spreading elsewhere, as well as other fast-spreading variants that first emerged in the UK and Brazil.
As delta spreads, worsening what the CDC has called a "pandemic of the unvaccinated," almost all of the key metrics are worsening in New York City -- still absolutely nowhere near the city's darkest days, but rising nonetheless.
Over the last two weeks, the percentage of people getting tested who test positive for the virus has nearly doubled, and now stands at nearly 2.7%. Hospitalizations are stabilizing, though, as are deaths.
Pandemic of the Unvaccinated
Delta, the variant that was first found in India and is now in at least 104 countries, has dramatically increased its prevalence across the U.S. over the last month, accounting now for well more than 80% of tested samples, according to the CDC.
Scientific evidence has shown delta spreads far more easily than earlier strains of the virus and causes more severe outcomes for those infected, prompting renewed pushes at all levels of government to get people vaccinated if they haven't been.
The New York Times reported Friday, citing unreleased CDC data, that officials now believe the delta variant may be as contagious as the chickenpox -- well known to generations of parents as one of life's most catchable viruses.
Earlier this week, the CDC said vaccinated people infected with delta may have the same viral load as an infected unvaccinated person, and be just as contagious.
The World Health Organization, which has called it the "fastest and fittest" variant yet, expects it to become the dominant strain globally.
Given the relatively minute subset of positive samples sequenced to assess potential strain variations, both CDC and local experts believe the prevalence of delta, which is classified as a variant of concern, to be much higher than reported.
The variant is being blamed for a surge in cases across the United States that has seen daily confirmed new cases rise five-fold since July 1 -- now more than 100,000 people a day testing positive nationwide, back to levels last seen in early March. While hospitalizations and daily deaths remain comparably low, those are lagging indicators and may rise as delta spreads in unvaccinated areas.
The latest data from the CDC shows they already are on the increase.
"There is a message that is crystal clear: this is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated," CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said recently. "We are seeing outbreaks of cases in parts of the country that have low vaccination coverage because unvaccinated people are at risk."
The White House says the Biden administration believes cases will continue to increase in the weeks ahead because of viral spread within low vaccination rate communities.
Existing vaccines are expected to protect people against delta and other variants of concern that have emerged, but with less than 60% fully immunized, delta's heightened transmissibility and associated risk has renewed concerns.
In New York City, where state data shows almost 65% of the adult population is fully vaccinated and more than 70% have had at least one shot, officials are warning of delta and doubling down on their message to get vaccinated with a sense of urgency that has been absent from the mayor's briefings the last month.
The situation is so urgent that New York City will now pay unvaccinated people $100 to get their first dose at a city-run site, starting Friday. Before the end of the day, a spokesperson for the mayor said that more than 2,100 city residents had gotten the incentive.
The city has also expanded its referral bonus program for local nonprofits and focused acutely on driving private practicing doctors to encourage their patients who haven't yet gotten vaccinated, for whatever reason, to get dosed now.
Now is an opportunity to sustain the city's progress against COVID-19, de Blasio says, and leverage existing vaccine effectiveness to curtail delta's spread.
Statewide, new daily COVID counts are closer to 2,500 the last few days than the roughly 300 to 400 Gov. Andrew Cuomo was reporting just a month ago. Daily deaths, for now, have reminded low.
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New York City and New Jersey Vaccine Providers
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Data: City of New York, State of New Jersey • Nina Lin / NBC