Capital Region holds steady amid huge COVID spike in NYC

People wait in a long line to get tested for COVID-19 in Times Square, New York, on Monday, Dec. 20, 2021.

People wait in a long line to get tested for COVID-19 in Times Square, New York, on Monday, Dec. 20, 2021.

Positive COVID tests have reached new all-time highs four days in a row in New York State, fueled by a sudden and huge spike of the virus downstate.

The rate of new infections in the Capital Region remains fairly high but relatively stable, as in most of the state’s 10 regions. The Southern Tier and Long Island regions are quite high but New York City, with its huge population, is causing the statewide totals to soar.

The statewide total of positive tests reached 21,027 — then an all-time high — on Thursday. Then 21,908 were recorded Friday and 22,478 on Saturday, according to the state Department of Health. On Sunday, normally a slower day with fewer tests administered, 23,391 positives were recorded.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett was among those testing positive.

In the Capital Region as of Sunday:

  • The seven-day average new infection rate was 62.4 per 100,000 residents, down from a recent peak of 71.7.
  • The seven-day average positive test rate was 7.1%, down from a recent peak of 8.2%.
  • And 258 people were hospitalized with COVID, down from a recent peak of 305.

Within the eight-county Capital Region, Warren and Washington counties continue to have the highest rate of new infections and positive tests while Saratoga and Schenectady counties have among the lowest.

WINTER STRATEGY

The omicron variant of COVID is being blamed at least in part for the surge. The variant, first observed in South Africa in late November, is believed to spread more rapidly but cause less-severe infections than earlier variants.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control now estimates that 90% or more of new cases in New York are omicron.

Gov. Kathy Hochul on Monday announced a winter surge plan to deal with the worsening situation. The plan is, essentially, to do what has been done all along, but more of it:

  • 10 million free at-home test kits
  • 2 million tests for schools
  • 6 million masks 
  • 7 new test sites statewide
  • $65 million to the 62 counties to aid local efforts to enforce the mask-or-vaccine rules Hochul ordered earlier this month.

More vaccinations and more booster shots are key to halting the spread, Hochul said.

She has said her intent is to avoid the economic shutdown and piecemeal limitations on gathering that were so common as a means of halting spread of the virus in 2020 under then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

She also wants to keep schools open, a statement she repeated that Monday.

“We believe that it’s critically important that our children not end up in that same situation they were for so many months, when they were so displaced from their normal environment, they did not get the quality of education,” Hochul said.

NEW YORK CITY

Just a couple of weeks ago, New York City seemed like a relative bright spot in the U.S. coronavirus struggle. Now it’s a hot spot, confronting a dizzying spike in cases, scramble for testing, and an exhausting sense of déjà vu.

An omicron-variant-fueled wave of cases is washing over the nation’s most populous city, which served as a nightmarish test case for the country early in the pandemic. While health officials say there are important reasons why it’s not spring 2020 all over again, some Broadway shows have abruptly canceled performances, an indoor face mask mandate is back, and testing is hard to come by.

“It’s disappointing that we haven’t developed a better system for this and that we weren’t better prepared for there to be another wave,” Jordan Thomas said Monday in her fourth hour of waiting for a test at a city-run health clinic near downtown Brooklyn.

As officials and health experts urged people to get not only tests but vaccine booster shots, an hourlong line for either one formed at a privately run pharmacy in lower Manhattan.

“I’m just trying to remain optimistic,” Inga Chen said as she waited for a booster.

After shuttering some testing centers last month for lack of demand and in favor of pop-up testing vans, the city is racing to expand capacity again. The 130,000 daily tests at city-sponsored sites is already double what the number was just three weeks ago, and Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday that the city would add 20 fixed locations and three vans this week. It also plans to distribute 500,000 at-home test kits.

Dr. Mitchell Katz, who runs the city public hospital system, said officials didn’t anticipate “so much news about omicron” or supplies of home test kits running low. Meanwhile, smaller testing sites ran into staffing problems this weekend as workers themselves contracted the virus, he said.

Katz said the city would now ensure it had people ready to fill in and take other steps to ease the testing crunch.

The U.S. is contending with both the rise of omicron and a monthslong surge fueled by the virus’ delta variant, and many other parts of the country have considerably higher infection rates than New York City did over the last week. But the speed of the onslaught here is rattling health experts, even after nearly two years of viral surprises.

“Um, we’ve never seen this before in #NYC,” mayoral public health adviser Dr. Jay Varma tweeted Thursday, referencing the rising positive test rate in the previous days.

Nearly 42,600 people citywide tested positive from Wednesday through Saturday — compared to fewer than 35,800 in the entire month of November. More than 15,000 additional positive tests came back Sunday.

The city has never had so many people test positive in such a short period of time since testing became widely available; there’s no clear picture of how many people got the virus during New York City’s first surge in spring 2020, because the relatively few tests being performed were reserved for those most likely to be sick or get sick.

As recently as Dec. 1, New York City’s number of new cases per person was running just over half the state average, by state figures. Now, the city is above the statewide average.

Hospitalizations also have been increasing, though much more slowly. 

Hospitalizations and deaths tend to trail cases in rising and falling. But officials note that in South Africa, where the omicron variant was first identified, a surge in cases has not been followed by a commensurate rise in hospitalizations and deaths.

New York hospitals say they have seen modest, but manageable, increases.

Still, hospitals are bracing for staffing crunches as infections or exposures force staffers to stay home. Katz said the public system’s clinics are shifting to almost all virtual visits so that some nurses and assistants can be shifted to hospitals and testing sites.

“We know how to do this. We are prepared,” he said at a virtual news conference with the Democratic mayor.

In some ways, there’s no comparison to the virus’ terrifying first strike, when no one was vaccinated, mask-wearing was almost unheard of in New York and clinicians were just beginning to learn how to treat COVID-19.

John Cropley reported for The Daily Gazette in the Capital Region. Jim Mustian, Jennifer Peltz and Ted Shaffrey of The Associated Press reported from New York City.

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