What to Know
- There is both molecular and real-world evidence that suggests omicron is highly infectious, though there's no confirmation yet on its severity. Early data indicates it's not linked to more severe illness
- NYC's daily COVID case average is up 34% over the average for the prior four weeks, while hospitalizations ticked up again Thursday; statewide, COVID hospitalizations are at 3,498 -- the highest number since April 21 and a jarring 86% increase in the last month alone
- Omicron has now been identified in at least half of U.S. states and 60-plus countries; preliminary data on severity has been encouraging, Fauci says, but delta continues to drive up the hospitalization rate
Gov. Kathy Hochul in no uncertain terms Thursday said the omicron COVID variant is spreading rapidly through New York because of community transmission, not travel-linked contact, but that's not her primary concern.
Hospital capacity is what keeps the governor "up at night," the Democrat said, as she announced that nearly three dozen hospitals throughout the state (32) had to suspend non-essential elective procedures effective immediately as a "preemptive strike" to secure capacity with delta, not omicron, driving skyrocketing bed use.
Hochul said the state will reassess those pauses on Jan. 15. They apply to hospitals that have less than 10% bed capacity available. It wasn't immediately clear how many of those hospitals were in the New York City area, but the five boroughs and the state have seen COVID hospitalizations soar in recent days.
In the city, the increase has been limited to the last two days after a lengthy period of stable or decreasing hospitalizations and is limited to about 6% on a rolling weekly average. Statewide, the total stands at 3,498 as of Thursday, Hochul said.
That marks the highest total since April 21 and an 86% increase in the last month alone. Hochul described those increases as "an alarm going off." She has expanded the eligible healthcare and vaccination workforce and allowed out-of-state and out-of-country professionals to practice in the city to shore up resources for now.
Hochul also said she would make a policy announcement Friday on additional steps needed to combat "this impending surge," a concept she had warned about in her earliest days as governor. She had hoped it wouldn't come to harsher steps, but said the vaccination rate, while rising, wasn't increasing sufficiently to combat the rise in hospitalizations and infections. Is that because the newer variants are becoming more evasive to vaccines? That's a matter still under investigation.
What is clear is that the omicron variant is highly infectious. And that delta, which still represents 99.9% of all sequenced samples in the U.S., and 98.9% and 99.8% of those sequenced in New York state and city, respectively, is still linked to more severe illness for the unvaccinated as well as higher death rates.
More than half of U.S. states and more than 60 countries have now detected omicron, New York state's new health commissioner, Dr. Mary Bassett said.
"The uptick that we’re seeing in cases and in hospitalizations reflects the delta variant," Bassett said. "It remains overwhelmingly the dominant strain in the U.S. and around the world and we don’t know yet whether it will out-compete delta."
The three main questions around omicron right now are transmissibility, severity and vaccine efficacy. Bassett said right now omicron appears to be highly contagious, no more lethal than earlier strains and that vaccines offer protection against severe symptoms and hospitalizations.
Many of the milder omicron cases across the U.S. have been breakthrough cases, the CDC has said. More research is needed to develop a sample size large enough to concretely assess the trends, according to experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci.
In the meantime, officials at all levels of government urge vaccinations -- and booster shots for those who are fully vaccinated -- regular hand-washing, masking up and taking real, thought-out precautions when it comes to the holidays.
"As we prepare for the holidays, plan around the most vulnerable person in the family unit," Bassett said, like her own mother, who is 93, or a child younger than age 5 who can't be vaccinated yet. "The best protection that children have is that every adult around them is fully vaccinated. We simply must use these tools."
As of Thursday, New York has confirmed a total of 20 omicron cases, 13 of those in New York City, though both state and city officials believe that number is a significant undercount given the percentage of positive samples tested each day.
The city's rolling daily case average is up 34% over the rolling average for the prior four weeks as of Thursday, and while omicron's potency on a number of fronts remains undetermined at this point, it's compounding concerns in New York.
"What we have is community spread," Hochul said of omicron Thursday. "It is not coming from people who have traveled. It is being spread in the communities. It spreads very quickly. We’re still monitoring the situation. We are prepared for this."
Hochul said the state has been and is poised to use more of the pandemic-fighting tools at its disposal. She didn't give an indication as to what Friday's policy announcement might be about apart from saying it involved steps to fight COVID.
The governor is also working to combat vaccine hesitancy among parents of younger children, she said, and schools throughout the state will be sending vaccination parents to surveys in an effort to better understand concerns and fine-tune messaging aimed at younger getting kids' vaccination rates up, Hochul said.
Less than 6% of New York kids aged 5 to 11 are fully vaccinated, though that number is expected to climb as more of the 20% who have received their first dose schedule their second shots. In New York City, 37% of kids in that age group are fully vaccinated, while nearly 48% have had at least one dose. The city's metric for kids is likely to change dramatically in short order, with the mayor's latest vaccine mandate expansion set to require proof from those ages starting on Tuesday.
As far as adults, about 80% of New Yorkers population aged 18 and older is fully vaccinated. Nearly 82% of adults in New York City can say the same.
A boon for the effort came Thursday when the CDC and FDA both recommended booster doses of the Pfizer vaccine for children aged 16 and 17. Learn more here.