Omicron Variant

NY ‘Turning the Corner' on Omicron: Hochul Says Winter Wave Has Peaked

NY COVID cases are still high, but breakthrough infection risk appears to be decreasing -- and so does the infection risk for the unvaccinated.

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What to Know

  • New York's rolling positivity rate fell below 20% Thursday, another recent low; daily deaths hit a new high of 195 for the first time since the mass vaccination rollout, reflecting the lagging factor
  • NY COVID cases are still high, but breakthrough infection risk appears to be decreasing-- and so does the infection risk for the unvaccinated
  • Unvaccinated NYers are still nearly 8x as likely as fully vaccinated ones to be infected and almost 13x as likely to be hospitalized; hospitalization rates are still at April 2020 highs but may ebb soon

New York's positivity rate and weekly case average are trending down, two key indicators that point to the state's progress in getting past the peak of the current omicron wave, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Friday.

They're part of growing signs, like shorter testing lines and fewer sick calls from EMS and firefighters, that point to better days ahead. Maybe one of the starkest signifiers of a weakening wave is the number of new cases reported in a single day. That figure has shrunk by about half in one week, down from an all-time high of over 90,000 cases reported on Jan. 8.

"There will come a time when we can say it's all over," Hochul said. "We're not there yet, but boy, it's on the horizon and we've waited a long time for that."

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All the work New Yorkers have done to protect themselves against the omicron variant seems to have paid off, leading the governor Friday to make her most definitive statement yet: "So here's the news flash -- turning the corner!"

In New York City, hospitals are already feeling less of a strain, according to Mayor Eric Adams. But, he cautioned, we are not out of the woods. Frontline workers are still stretched thin, prompting a federal response to come in and help ease the burden.

"It really appears that the numbers in our hospitals are stabilizing," Adams said, before hedging too much optimism. "Now Eric did not say we peaked and we declined, I don't need that to be the headline. I say it's stabilizing."

It comes a day after Hochul's office released data showing breakthrough COVID infections in New York have declined for the first time since omicron's emergence as has rolling positivity, fueling hope the variant's peak may have passed.

On Thursday, Hochul reported a daily death toll of 195 -- a 17% increase over the prior recent high and the highest single-day total in a year. She reported 177 news deaths the following day. Tragically, the increasing number of lives lost may also reflect an easing of the omicron wave. First, there's the surge in cases, then the surge in hospitalizations.

Some of those patients die. This recent daily high is mercifully lower than the 800 New Yorkers who were dying a day early in the pandemic and reflects the power of vaccination along with other efforts to curb viral spread but is a critical reminder.

As Hochul said in a statement on the latest numbers, "Even as the rate of new infections continues to move in a promising direction, too many New Yorkers are getting sick, being hospitalized or tragically losing their lives -- we must remain vigilant in our fight against the virus. We can't afford to reverse the progress."

That progress is becoming more evident across more metrics by the day. After weeks of statewide hospitalizations mostly rising daily, sometimes markedly, New York reported a reduction of 219 patients. Fewer than 12,500 patients are hospitalized for COVID statewide -- a high not seen since April 2020 until recently.

Omicron has probably reached its peak in the northeast United States, says NBC medical contributor Dr. Natalie Azar. Cases are rising less quickly than before and could hopefully come down quickly too. But "we have to watch and wait and see what happens," Azar says.

Some of that may be attributed to the increased lives lost as compared with the recent days, but nearly 2,000 patients were discharged, almost 50 more than the number newly admitted, according to the state.

Other reasons for optimism: Of nearly 357,000 total tests conducted Wednesday, the highest test volume in the last five days, less than 17% came back positive, another recent first, while the state's seven-day rolling positivity average fell below 20%. That rolling positivity is still exceedingly high, especially considering the rolling average was just over 3% exactly two months ago, but it hasn't been as low as Hochul reported Thursday (18.61%) since Dec. 30 and marks sustained decline.

Breakthrough infections, which have increased weekly per 100,000 fully vaccinated New York residents since Oct. 25 but markedly so since the second week of November, when omicron was likely spreading undetected throughout the state, also declined by that metric for the first time in more than a month. As of the latest data, 219.4 per 100,000 fully vaccinated New Yorkers were becoming new cases.

That's down from a high of 260.6 per 100,000 fully vaccinated New York residents in the prior weekly update from Dec. 27. Breakthrough hospitalizations, meanwhile, have climbed -- from 4.60 hospitalizations per 100,000 fully vaccinated New Yorkers in the Dec. 27 data set to 5.79 in the latest data set. Still, that means fewer than six fully vaccinated New Yorkers per 100,000 are getting that sick from COVID.

breakthrough case update NY
New York Department of Health

The increase likely further supports the lagging indicator concept and remains overwhelmingly below the risk to unvaccinated New Yorkers. That group also saw new COVID cases per 100,000 drop in this data set compared with the previous one (from 1,982.5 infections to 1,706.3) and hospitalizations rise (74.61 vs. 59.17).

In other words, unvaccinated New Yorkers are still nearly eight times as likely as fully vaccinated ones to be infected with COVID and almost 13 times as likely to be hospitalized -- but the risk is dropping for the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike.

This is a new trend. The grey shaded areas in the chart above reflect still-accruing data, the state notes -- and new daily cases in New York bounced back above 60,000 Thursday for the first time all week, so it'll take a bit longer to determine whether this current trend is a sustainable one.

Hochul has said she feels it just might be -- but she's not declaring victory yet.

Asked earlier this week whether she might consider allowing her state mask mandate, which she extended to Feb. 2 in her winter surge plan, to lapse at that point, the Democrat said she wanted to "buy a little more time" to be sure it holds.

In New York City, which bore the brunt of this wave and others, Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi says it's too early to change any protocol given the still exorbitantly high rates of infection and hospitalization in the five boroughs.

That said, this latest data provides a bit more of what Hochul has described as "glimmers of hope" that the protocol -- the mask-wearing, vaccine mandates, testing and other measures -- are indeed working across the board for most.

When will it end? Dr. Anthony Fauci said last week he thought omicron's peak could be a matter of weeks away -- and CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky has said it is possible (though far from certain) cases could drop as quickly as they rose.

Nationally, omicron's prevalence is believed to be as high as 99.1%, according to new CDC data updated Tuesday. The agency estimates the variant's share of cases in the New York region, which for its purposes includes New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands along with the Empire State, to be as high as 99.7%.

"We must do all of us do our part to protect our hospitals and our neighbors and reduce the further spread of this virus," CDC Director Dr. Rochell Walensky said at a White House briefing Wednesday. "We know what works against COVID-19. This means getting vaccinated and getting boosted, wearing a mask in public indoor settings in areas of high transmission -- and currently, that's over 99% of our counties -- and testing before you gather with others."

CORRECTION:
This headline and story have been corrected throughout to remove erroneous references to hospitalizations declining for the first time during the omicron wave of COVID-19.

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