What to Know
- The CDC is using Anime NYC as a contact tracing test case of sorts to analyze the transmissibility of the omicron variant; there is both molecular and real-world evidence that suggests it is highly infectious
- NYC's daily COVID case average is up 37% over the average for the prior for weeks, while hospitalizations are starting to tick up; statewide, COVID hospitalizations are at 3,489 -- the highest number since April 21 and a jarring 86% increase in the last month alone
- Omicron has now been identified in at least 19 U.S. states and more than 50 countries; preliminary data on severity has been encouraging, Fauci says, but delta continues to drive up the hospitalization rate
Health officials are contact tracing tens of thousands of Anime NYC convention attendees to better understand the omicron variant and its transmissibility, its severity, and whether it's more evasive when it comes to the existing vaccines.
Local officials say it appears community spread is well underway -- and the data underscores that point. The city added another six confirmed omicron cases Wednesday, bringing the total to 13, though both Mayor Bill de Blasio and his health commissioner, Dr. Dave Chokshi, believe the number is much higher than reported.
"Far more important than that number of individual cases is the fact that we expect there is community transmission of Omicron already happening," Chokshi said. "We are not seeing any significant clusters at this moment and what this means is that known omicron cases are not linked to any one individual or event but are consistent with community transmission."
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The city's rolling daily COVID case average is up 37% compared with the daily average for the prior four weeks. And the rolling hospitalization rate is up Wednesday after holding stable or declining for quite some time.
It's not clear how much of the COVID case uptick could be linked to omicron -- delta still accounts for 98% of all positive New York City samples that are genetically sequenced and that's the variant driving up the severe case rate across the U.S.
New York state has confirmed at least six cases outside the city, with the most recent addition coming a day ago and involving a 13-year-old in Westchester County. The relative unknowns around this variant combine with the known dangers of delta to stoke urgent vaccine messaging from officials leading into the holidays.
The jury is still out as to whether omicron poses the same severity threat as delta. Early evidence suggests it is not, but it is believed to be more infectious than earlier strains of the coronavirus.
The head of the CDC said Tuesday that more than 35,000 of the reported 53,000 people who attended the convention at Javits Center from Nov. 19 through 21 have been contacted and urged to take a COVID-19 test after a vaccinated Minnesota man tested positive with the omicron variant.
"Data from this investigation will likely provide some of the earliest looks in this country on the transmissibility of the variant," Dr. Rachel Walensky said during her briefing.
"At a time where there is much uncertainty with Omicron, we find ourselves in a far better position now than we were last year," she added, urging people who haven't gotten vaccinated yet to do so. "We have gained knowledge and experience from addressing other variants, such as Delta, and we have far more science, tools, and treatment options available."
There is both molecular evidence as well as real-world evidence that omicron is associated with increased infectivity, Dr. Anthony Fauci affirmed Tuesday, which means there's going to be a rapid increase in cases on top of the delta threat.
Those increases have been observed in South Africa where scientists first identified the new variant. "There was almost a vertical spike where -- in South Africa -- with the increase in new cases, very heavily weighted towards Omicron, strongly suggesting a dominant capability of that variant over others," Fauci said.
It may take a few more weeks for scientists to get concrete answers as to whether omicron is more dangerous than other COVID variants, he added.
"It's too early to be able to determine the precise severity of disease, but inklings that we are getting -- and we must remember these are still in the form of anecdotal, but hopefully in the next few weeks we’ll get a much clearer picture," Fauci said. "But it appears that with the cases that are seen, we are not seeing a very severe profile of disease."
Pfizer offered hopeful news on the vaccination front Wednesday, saying its booster has proven effective against omicron. Moderna has yet to release comparative data.
Even if omicron proves to be less severe in terms of illnesses and deaths, which it does appear to be at this early stage, there are several other factors that can impact the lives of New Yorkers, Mayor Bill de Blasio cautioned as he tripled down on his new, strictest-in-the-nation vaccine mandate that will impact kids age 5-11 and workers in the private sector starting later this month.
"What our doctors have said, if you just keep adding cases, cases, cases, even if it's less bad than we feared, you still have a lot of vulnerable seniors. You still have a lot of vulnerable people with preexisting conditions," the mayor said on CNN.
"You still have hospitals where you’ve got to worry about their capacity. And those are the things that start to push you towards, again, the things we want to avoid, the shutdowns and restrictions," de Blasio added. "So, we know enough about Omicron right now to say it's going to be a big factor. Let's get ahead of it."
Hospitalizations in the city are up almost 14% on a rolling basis as of Wednesday, the first such marked increase, though more time will be needed to assess a potential trend. Daily COVID deaths are also up marginally in the city. Both of those metrics are far more critical barometers for officials than infections.
The data is concerning at the state level, too. Statewide, the COVID hospitalization total has climbed to 3,489 -- the highest number since April 21 and a jarring 86% increase in the last month alone. There has been an increase in ICU patients and deaths are up 50% compared to last week, according to the state's latest data.
Right now, New York is among six states that account for the majority of the country’s increase in hospital beds filled, according to an NBC News analysis of federal data.
While New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois make up 35% of the population among states with increasing COVID hospitalizations, they make up 60% of the added beds, the analysis showed.
The trends are evident nationally, too. Some states are grappling with some of the worst surges since the start of the pandemic, despite high vaccination rates.