Omicron Variant

NY Shortens Isolation Time for Essential Workers as 44,431 New Cases Smash Single-Day Record

Airlines have been forced to cancel holiday flights because of the volume, not severity, of employee infections. Hospital managers say they're wary about staffing shortages for similar reasons -- and far more than they're worried about an influx of people seriously sick with omicron

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What to Know

  • NY smashed its all-time daily COVID case record for the seventh time in little more than a week on Friday as new state data clearly shows vaccine efficacy declines vs. infection but not hospitalization
  • More than 44K NYers tested positive, Gov. Kathy Hochul said, an increase of nearly 6,000 over Thursday; most of them were in NYC; hospitalizations statewide topped 4,700 Friday, the highest since 3/9
  • Still, officials say there is no reason to panic; yes, the sheer infection increases alone are astonishing, they say, but vaccines are holding up vs severe omicron infection and state and city hospitals are prepared

New York has modified its return-to-work COVID policies for essential workers as it faces a record stretch of omicron-fueled virus infections, shortening the isolation timeline to five days to mitigate staffing concerns, Gov. Kathy Hochul said Friday.

That shortened window applies to essential workers who are both fully vaccinated and asymptomatic as well as to fully vaccinated workers who had mild symptoms that resolved and no fever for 72 hours without fever-reducing medication, Hochul said. They also have to wear masks upon return. Testing is not required.

See the state's complete updated return-to-work guidance for essential personnel here, as well as who is defined as essential personnel.

The tweak incorporates the latest guidance from the CDC, which shortened its recommended isolation window for healthcare workers a day ago, and the milder infections with omicron, which are knocking out huge chunks of workforces just because of high positivity rates alone. Many such positive workers don't show symptoms or show mild symptoms and do not need medical treatment to recover.

United and Delta airlines have been forced to cancel holiday flights because of the volume, crippling air travel at the height of the holiday season.

Hospital managers, including the head of the largest public health care system in the U.S., Dr. Mitchell Katz of NYC Health + Hospitals, say they're wary about staffing shortages for similar reasons -- and far more than they're worried about an influx of people seriously sick with omicron. That's what Hochul is trying to accommodate.

"Positive cases don't necessarily mean that you are too sick and require hospitalization. We just have to again, manage," Hochul said. "This is not delta. This is not the first variant. This is omicron which thus far, and again I have to qualify this, thus far, has demonstrated as we've watched around the globe and other places where it hit first, that it's not as severe in its impact."

"Therefore, we want to make sure that our critical workforce who we've relied on from the beginning ... that our workers can get back," she added, referring to those who work in sectors like healthcare, eldercare, home healthcare, sanitation, grocery stores, pharmacies and restaurants. "You're the ones that got us through the first many months of anxiety. We need you, again, we need you to be able to go to work."

As she has done in multiple briefings this week, Hochul acknowledged the sheer volume of cases linked to omicron but downplayed the severity associated with the surge, saying again, "this is not the same situation we had in March 2020 or even last winter's surge. We’ve had more testing. We’ve had more opportunities."

Still, hospitalizations, especially among the unvaccinated, are continuing to rise, Hochul said --and her prime concern is having sufficient hospital staff to treat them.

The governor's Friday hospitalization update included a 5% day-over-day spike in hospitalizations, which have now topped 4,700 and stand at their highest levels since mid-March. The 4,744 total is still well short of the 7,000 New Yorkers who were hospitalized with COVID this time last year, Hochul said.

The state's latest recent high in daily deaths was about 71 (Hochul added 69 more to the rolling toll Friday), and while some of the mounting hospitalizations could add to the fatality count, daily death rates remain mercifully below the devastating highs of the early pandemic, when 800 New Yorkers were dying every 24 hours.

Both metrics are to be monitored closely, Hochul said, especially amid a week that has seen the state shatter its own COVID record at least half a dozen times.

As eye-popping as the numbers have been in recent days, Thursday's report from the state was still stunning -- 38,835 positive tests in just one day, an increase of 10,000 from the day before. Of those, 22,208 were in New York City alone by the state's account, orders of magnitude greater than anything either the city or state faced before omicron (although a true comparison to the number of cases during the initial COVID surge in spring 2020 is impossible because testing was limited).

In simpler terms — in just the last week, roughly 1% of all New York City residents, and 1% of all New York state residents, have tested positive for COVID.

Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says with the available tools to help prevent and fight COVID-19, "there really is no need to panic."

New York, like many states, has seen hours-long lines for COVID testing amid soaring national demand. Hochul says the state has sent 600,000 tests to New York City in the last 48 hours alone and is working to bring more direct resources.

Five more testing sites will open next week, one in each borough. The state has also launched 37 new pop-ups and plans 17 more in New York City. Another 13 test sites launch across the state Wednesday. Appointments open starting Monday.

"We're focusing on high need areas, but also our smaller communities that may not have had the resources to put these up and we're also focused on making sure we continue to support New York City, a place that because of its dense population we know is more vulnerable," Hochul said.

Ultimately, officials say vaccinations will quell the increases in hospitalizations and deaths associated with the omicron wave -- and those metrics are a much greater concern for them than infections alone. That's why they're urging calm at this time -- and pushing vaccinations and COVID boosters for those who have to get them.

Hochul has remained adamant there will be no new COVID-related shutdowns in New York amid this explosive omicron surge, and while she acknowledges omicron appears more adept at evading vaccine protection when it comes to infections, state data shows that's not true with more severe cases.

The chart lines below, part of the state's breakthrough data reporting, clearly show the decline in vaccination effectiveness against infection is far sharper than the drop in effectiveness against hospitalization.

New Daily Cases Over Time by Vaccination Status

New Daily Hospitalizations Over Time by Vaccination Status

Perhaps most importantly, data by age shows vaccinations have the highest continued efficacy rate against severe illness for the older, and likely more vulnerable, age groups.

The rate of effectiveness for those aged 65 and older is 97.1% for the latest week of study (Dec. 13), which is actually higher than the efficacy rate for the comparable week a month earlier (95.9%). That could reflect higher booster rates for that population as well. By comparison, efficacy against hospitalization is down slightly (93.8% from 94.5%) for those aged 50 to 64 and 18 to 49 (94.1% from 95%).

The 65-and-older group also has higher vaccine efficacy now against infections than they did in the Nov. 15 week (93.3% currently, up from 90.6%). Efficacy against infections is down, again marginally, for the 50-to-64 group (77.3% from 79%). New Yorkers aged 18 to 49 have seen the starkest declines in vaccine efficacy against infection (66.4% this latest week, down from 76.6% Nov. 15).

The data supports repeat assurances from Hochul, Mayor Bill de Blasio and public health experts like CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky and Dr. Anthony Fauci that there is no overwhelming need to panic. While the surging numbers are frightening for many, the omicron wave should peak very high and very fast, then end, they say.

The first U.S. omicron case was reported on Dec. 1. It took the heavily mutated variant less than three weeks to establish its dominance in America. United and Delta airlines have been forced to cancel holiday flights because of high staff infections and hospital managers say they're wary about staffing shortages for similar reasons -- and far more than they're worried about an influx of sick people.

The sheer infectiousness of omicron alone is taking essential workers out of play -- and nowhere is the transmissibility more evident than in the New York area.

The CDC estimates more than 90% of current cases in the New York area -- one that for its genomic surveillance purposes includes New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands -- are the omicron strain. That's up from 25% last week.

As Hochul said this week, the winter surge is upon us and New Yorkers should expect cases to continue to rise. But they can also expect to reduce their chances of severe COVID-related illness through vaccinations and boosters.

Ninety-five percent of all New York adults have gotten at least one vaccine dose, Hochul said Friday. She called that a milestone. There's still a ways to go.

"Thanks to vaccines and boosters, our fight against the pandemic is going better than last Christmas but we still must ensure we're taking the proper precautions to keep each other safe this holiday season," Hochul said in a statement Friday.

"Get vaccinated, get the booster if you're already vaccinated, and make sure to mask up and wash your hands—especially if you're visiting elderly loved ones," she added. "Take care to protect your most vulnerable loved ones who join you around the dinner table this weekend, and let's make sure we're enjoying a healthy Christmas and happy holiday season."

NBC New York's Checkey Beckford reports.
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