What to Know
- Core viral rates are seeing slower rates of growth across New York, even though they remain high; positivity rates are declining even as the lagging indicators, hospitalizations and deaths, continue to rise
- Omicron variant symptoms are milder than those associated with prior COVID strains, but hospitalizations are still rising. The CDC says more than 99% of all U.S. counties are considered high transmission areas
- Omicron now accounts for up to 99.1% of all U.S. cases, the CDC says; Pfizer and Moderna are working on omicron-specific vaccines but experts say it may already be too late to make a difference
Cautious optimism that New York has passed the peak of this furious omicron wave strengthened a bit more Wednesday, with Gov. Kathy Hochul reporting declines in daily positivity and slowing growth in hospitalization rates for a third straight day.
Nearly 59,000 new daily cases were reported, a roughly 10,000-case increase over Tuesday's numbers, though the latter may have reflected lags in weekend reporting. The positivity rate stood at 17.4%, marking the third straight day where fewer than one in five New York COVID tests came back positive and the only day in that stretch where the total number of tests topped 350,000.
While a far cry from the 1% to 1.5% positivity rates New York City was reporting just two months ago, in early-to-mid November before omicron's emergence, it's a drastic reduction from reported rates that have topped 30% in the last few weeks.
The rolling positivity rate has declined in eight of New York's 10 regions for the last three days, while the two reporting increases have seen just mild infection growth.
Hospitalizations stand at 12,671 as of Wednesday, the highest total since April 26, 2020, and a net increase of 131 over Tuesday, but the trend of slowing growth rates continues and is the reason for the state's cautious optimism. The daily death toll, meanwhile, was 166, again a new high since the mass vaccination rollout.
Hospitalizations and deaths, though, are both lagging indicators and are expected to continue rising for weeks after the case surge ebbs.
"The data we are seeing on new infections offers a glimmer of hope that New Yorkers' discipline in fighting the winter surge is paying off," Hochul said in a statement. "We are getting through this, but we must stay vigilant and not take our hard-won progress for granted. We know what works - make sure you and your loved ones are vaccinated and boosted, wear a mask, and exercise caution in indoor public spaces so we can finally leave this pandemic in the past."
A day ago, the governor seemed relieved as she said it "looks like we might be cresting over that peak" in a COVID update delivered from her office in Manhattan.
Asked whether she might consider allowing her statewide mask mandate, which she extended until Feb. 2 as part of her winter surge plan, to lapse at that point, Hochul said she wanted to "buy a little more time. This trend is brand new."
"I have to make sure that it holds, first of all, and I expect it will, but I'm not going to be guessing in this business," she added.
Local governments can always choose to implement more intense restrictions than the state mandates, as New York City has done. The private-sector vaccine mandate and KeyNYC are examples that may not disappear even if the trends hold.
They are holding so far, and while there is a way to go, the downswing from the omicron surge could turn out to be faster than once thought, especially in terms of cases.
Preserving hospital capacity remains a top concern for the state. Hochul described the current admissions rates as still too high, especially for regions with lower overall rates but less capacity to flex resources to accommodate the influxes.
New York City and Long Island, for example, both top the charts for COVID patients hospitalized per 100,000 since Dec. 1, but they're not the regions at risk of overwhelming their facilities. Hochul said Tuesday she had paused elective procedures in three regions -- the Finger Lakes, Mohawk Valley and Central New York -- because current hospitalization rates there put bed capacity at risk.
The city's health commissioner, Dr. Dave Chokshi, was a bit less optimistic Wednesday than Hochul was a day earlier as far as the apparent plateau in cases.
He stopped short of calling the latest data a "glimmer of hope," citing ongoing increases in hospitalizations and the lagging factor associated with them.
Chokshi said it's critical to continue the omicron measures currently in place -- a sentiment with which Hochul agrees even as she weighs loosening them potentially in as little as a number of weeks.
The developments come as newly released state breakthrough data highlights in stark reality the viral force that crippled workforces for every key industry last month and continues to assert its power over the globe, reasons Pfizer and Moderna are scrambling to make an omicron-specific vaccine that some say is already too late.
To be sure, viral rates are still increasing across most key indicators, but the rate of growth appears to be slowing -- drastically so, at times -- over the last week. Time will tell as to whether it's a promising trend or merely a blip in this latest wave.
Dr. Anthony Fauci told News 4 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%.
"The sudden and steep rise in cases due to omicron is resulting in unprecedented daily case counts, sickness, absenteeism, and strains on our healthcare system," Walensky said at a White House COVID briefing Wednesday. "The risk of hospitalization remains low, especially among people who are up to date on their COVID vaccines. However, the staggering rise in cases over 1 million new cases each day has led to a high number of total hospitalizations."
"We must do all of us do our part to protect our hospitals and our neighbors and reduce the further spread of this virus," Walensky added. "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."