Hochul Says No New Shutdown as Omicron Overtakes Delta, Fuels Case Records

The CDC declared omicron the dominant variant in the U.S. Monday, accounting for over 90% of all cases in New York and New Jersey

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What to Know

  • The omicron variant is fueling a surge that has set single-day pandemic records for statewide cases four days in a row; COVID hospitalizations are the highest they've been since mid-April
  • Given high vaccination rates for the densest parts of NY, especially the city, and increases in booster doses, amid other protective tools, Gov. Kathy Hochul says the state will be able to ride out this wave
  • Most importantly, the Democrat says she doesn't anticipate the need for another shutdown. On schools, she stressed, "We are keeping our schools open. Let me repeat that: We are keeping our schools open"

New York state's vaccinated health commissioner tested positive for COVID-19 via a rapid test, marking yet another breakthrough case as the Big Apple battles a record-breaking viral surge, Gov. Kathy Hochul said Monday as she acknowledged the open seat next to her. Dr. Mary T. Bassett has also gotten her booster, she added.

News of the positive test for the state's leading health official came the same day the Empire State broke its own single-day pandemic case record for a fourth straight day, with Hochul reporting nearly 23,400 new cases overnight. The lion's share of those infections come from New York City, where over 15,000 people tested positive, up nearly 50% since Friday.

The overwhelming majority of those new cases are the omicron variant, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday. Nationwide, the variant detected only a matter of weeks ago has over taken delta and now accounts for almost 75% of all cases. In Region 2, which is comprised of New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, the CDC says 90% of new infections are the omicron variant.

The strain of coronavirus that infected Bassett wasn't known and would take more extensive testing to determine if it were omicron, as all isolation of variants requires.

The unprecedented infectiousness of the new variant, and its apparent ability to evade the immune system, has stoked anxiety across the state and nation, but officials are quick to point out it doesn't appear to cause more severe disease -- at least for those who are fully vaccinated and received a booster like Bassett, for whom Hochul described no severe symptoms as a result of her infection.

The Democrat insisted fully vaccinated and boosted New Yorkers can safely gather with other fully vaccinated and boosted loved ones this holiday season and take solace in the expectation that those key protections, along with enhanced mask protocol in crowds at least through the season, will spare them any severe COVID illness this winter. She also insisted once again Monday that these tools, which were not widely available this time last year, will spare the state another shutdown.

Moderna says its COVID-19 booster does appear to provide protection against the omicron variant.

"It's not March of 2020. It's not even December of 2020. Just to keep things in perspective, it is milder than delta," Hochul said of omicron. "We are avoiding a government shutdown because we now have the tools available to all of us -- vaccinations, booster shots, masks -- particularly for the variant we're dealing with."

"We are keeping our schools open," Hochul emphasized. "Let me repeat that: We are keeping schools open."

For the nearly 20% of New York adults who aren't yet fully vaccinated, omicron -- and the still pervasive delta variant, the story could be different. Hochul has been vocal about her mounting frustration with that group in recent weeks.

She has called out certain parts of the state with particularly low rates, like the Southern Tier, North Country and Mohawk Valley, for contributing to the furious spread of a pandemic-causing virus that feeds off its ability to mutate.

Only about two-thirds of adult residents in those regions are fully vaccinated, the latest state data show. That compares with about 83% of New York City adults and 86% of those on Long Island. The number of cases per 100,000 residents over a seven-day rolling period hits the denser areas harder, with the city and Long Island reporting 92.9 and 102.8 new cases per 100,000 residents by that metric.

The Southern Tier is the most densely populated of the three lowest vaccinated regions in New York state and has the highest new cases per 100,000 residents rate (110.4) of all 10 regions. New York City has roughly six times the population of the Southern Tier and a lower hospitalization per 100,000 residents rate (11.46) over the last seven days than any other region in the state.

Long Island is third-lowest (19.67), with another highly vaccinated region, Mid-Hudson, sandwiched in between. These numbers are further evidence, officials say, of the power of existing vaccines to prevent severe COVID-linked illness and death, whatever the variant linked to the increases in infections.

Through lab detection in New York, at least 192 cases of omicron have been officially confirmed, about a fifth of them in New York City. The Empire State only conducts the genetic sequencing necessary to isolate variants on 3.6% of positive COVID samples, well lower than other hotspots like California (6.07%) but higher than New Jersey.

While the exact number of new omicron cases across the state can be difficult to determine given those limitations, no county has anywhere close to the number of confirmed cases of the new variant than Tompkins (117), which falls within the Southern Tier region. It's also home to Ithaca and Cornell University, where the campus COVID surge forced a nearly full remote end to this latest semester.

Every single one of the 115 student samples that were tested for variants came back as omicron, the university said late Friday.

Source: CoVariants
Amy O’Kruk/NBC

Data on the genetic sequencing rates by New York county for positive COVID samples by New York county does not appear available, so it's unclear if Tompkins County is linked to a much higher omicron rate because of the testing volume.

While omicron may not be linked to more severe illness, it is causing an unprecedented surge in COVID cases that alone could overwhelm underprepared hospitals, top health officials at all levels of government have said.

In New York, the number of hospitals with bed capacity below 10% has declined since Hochul's Nov. 22 briefing, from 28 to 32, which she says is encouraging.

"This is really the break point. If you have a surge of individuals needing medical care in a hospital, that's where things break down," Hochul said. "This is where our hands-on engagement is really making a difference. This could have been a crisis situation already" given the soaring statewide hospitalizations over the last month.

"We may not hit those peaks again," the governor added. "We're not going to throw in the towel here. We will not surrender to pandemic fatigue, as much as we're getting exhausted from this. We can get through this holiday season."

Other differentiators the governor plans to deploy in the next few weeks -- more hospital staff, at-home tests for school kids. Hochul says she's adamant that they remain safely open. Starting in January, she plans to send at-home testing kids with children in COVID-affected classrooms as part of that multi-pronged effort.

In addition, Hochul said the state will send and/or make available:

  • $65 million in aid to counties for "mask or vax" protocol implementation
  • 10 million more free at-home tests, including half of those this month (2 million for school districts, 1 million for county emergency managers, 1.6 million for NYC, 400,000 for state vaccine sites)
  • 3.4 million robocalls reminding vaccinated people to get their boosters
  • 6 million masks to county emergency managers

Hochul says she's not there yet but she's frustrated with trying to hammer home the same point to vaccine holdouts and is instead redoubling her focus on vaccinations and boosters through incentive-laden campaigns in an effort to get potentially more amenable parts of the state with lower vaccination rates to boost their paces.

New York City continues to push the same message, even as its triumphant plans for a crowd-filled (fully vaccinated only, of course) New Year's Eve in Times Square now appear far less definitive than they were just a few weeks ago.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged a decision on that party before Christmas. He warned Monday the omicron surge would likely intensify further -- and considerably so -- before it abates but says the good news is it is expected to be short-lived.

"We're going to see a really fast upsurge in cases. We're going to see a lot of New Yorkers affected by omicron," the Democrat said, noting the surge is only expected to last a few weeks, based on the information he has received.

"We will get past omicron. We will continue our recovery in this city," de Blasio, whose mayoral term wraps up Dec. 31. "Vaccination will be the key to all of this and New York City continues to lead the way in this country in terms of huge numbers of people vaccinated and aggressive measures to get even more folks vaccinated."

The fate of the annual New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square will be decided this week. Meanwhile, private school teachers have run out of time to get vaccinated. NBC New York's Tracie Strahan and Romney Smith report.
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