As the U.S. winds down its first full year with a COVID-19 vaccine, the Omicron variant is threatening to upend a banner year—with New York City among its first targets.
In the last three days, the city has been hit with a record-breaking surge in COVID cases fueled by Omicron, with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s top medical adviser Dr. Jay Varma tweeting Thursday how “we’ve never seen this before in NYC.”
Varma noted how the city’s daily positivity rate doubled from 3.9 percent to 7.8 percent between Dec. 9 and Dec. 12, inducing a fresh wave of fear just as the city promoted months of relative normalcy. The city’s current seven-day average is 5.19 percent, according to city data.
“You live through March of 2020 and come out on top and then you think it’ll never happen to you,” Cooper Lund, a 32-year-old Brooklynite who tested positive on Sunday, told The Daily Beast. “Then one random day, you test positive. It’s surreal, but thankfully I was not very sick so honestly, it was a little anticlimactic. I wouldn’t say that’s the case for everyone though.”
The fresh surge has left de Blasio, who had just celebrated the full-scale return of the city’s New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square last month, reconsidering whether that remains the best option.
“We made the decision a few weeks back when things were much better. But we said vaccinated people only,” he said Friday, according to NBC New York. “Now we’re going to reassess constantly with the new information. We’re going to follow the data and the science. Right now, it’s on. You know, we’ll make a decision as we go, get closer as to what should finally happen.”
Other venues have been hit hard by the surge, with multiple restaurants and Broadway shows closing due to COVID outbreaks among staff, cast, and crew members. One production, Moulin Rouge!, was forced to pull the plug on Thursday after the audience was seated due to a COVID case among either the cast or crew. According to the CDC, New York and New Jersey have been seeing as many as four times the rates of Omicron as other states.
For Lund, one possible exposure point could have been an extremely packed LCD Soundsystem concert he attended at Brooklyn Steel last Thursday. It was one of at least four concerts put on at the venue by the band known for their heartbreaking but eerily appropriate song, “New York I Love You, But You're Bringing Me Down”—and the event has been deemed on social media as a possible vector for COVID.
“The shows were ‘mask encouraged’ and everyone had to be vaccinated to enter the venue, but once inside people were pretty relaxed,” Lund said. “The people behind me were passing around a small baggie of white powder amongst them so I would say people weren’t too worried.”
Lund, who is triple vaccinated, said that he didn’t think anything of the concert’s close quarters or the rising cases in the city until Sunday morning when he woke up with some symptoms.
“I have a policy of testing myself for COVID when I get sick at all,” Lund said. “I took a rapid test at home and it was positive. That test is now taped on our fridge.”
Of their group of four who attended the concert, only Lund and his girlfriend tested positive. That said, Lund said a friend went to another LCD Soundsystem show with a group of 21—and 11 of them have tested positive.
Lund said he hasn’t received any notices from Brooklyn Steel or Bowery Presents, who organized the show. A city contact tracer called to ask what he had done the day before his positive test.
Another 28-year-old who attended the LCD Soundsystem concert on Dec. 9 told The Daily Beast that she and her sister contracted COVID-19 after what she deemed was a “sick show.” The New Yorker, who wished to remain anonymous, added that she was unsure whether she contracted the virus from the concert since she went out before and after the event.
As cases spike, the city has seen massive lines at testing clinics, drawing flashbacks to the city’s early days as a COVID epicenter in March 2020. Crown Heights resident Ezra Benus told WLNY he waited nearly two hours for a COVID test Thursday—after spending two months getting one within five minutes every week. He said he was lucky he got a test at all.
“This is after coming yesterday twice and then not being able to get tested here,” Benus said.
Statewide, the situation is just as dire. The state reported more than 20,000 new cases on Thursday, the highest daily case count since the pandemic began. Hospitalizations are thankfully at a very low level, with about 1,000 people hospitalized in New York City, according to state data. About 71 percent of New York City residents are vaccinated, according to the city’s health department, and the Omicron variant doesn’t appear to cause more severe symptoms so far, especially among the vaccinated.
Gov. Kathy Hochul has implemented an indoor mask mandate for places that do not require proof of vaccination through at least Jan. 15.
Other cities and states such as Houston and Miami are in the midst of their own Omicron-fueled surges, with public health officials urging everyone to get vaccinated and, if they are, to get a booster shot. Studies have shown the two-dose mRNA vaccines are weakened when confronted by Omicron, though the variant is not believed to be more serious than the Delta variant that preceded it.
“For the unvaccinated, you’re looking at a winter of severe illness and death,” White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeff Zients said at a public briefing Friday, “for yourselves, your families and for the hospitals that you may overwhelm.”
Dr. Timothy Brewer, an epidemiology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, attributed the oncoming surge to a convergence of the more transmissible nature of Omicron and the colder winter months, which often force people indoors. He said, however, people should not use fear as a basis of a response to the variant.
“Fear is probably never a useful response to any problem,” Brewer told The Daily Beast. “In general, the less panic and fear, the better.”
He said he did not foresee another economic shutdown, pointing to the widespread availability of vaccines and the increased vaccination rates among the U.S. About 203 million people are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC.
“That’s not a standard public health response to an outbreak,” he said. “What you want to be focused on is isolating those who are sick, quarantining those who are exposed, and using other preventative measures like mask-wearing and good hygiene.”
Brewer said the absolute best thing people could do, however, is get vaccinated and get a booster if eligible.
“What I would be aiming for is maximizing my vaccine and booster coverage,” he said.