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DeBlasio Nixes Lockdown as Omciron Spikes; Offers $$$ to Get Booster

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Edited by: Fern Sidman

Long lines for COVID tests — and extended waits for results — plagued New Yorkers nearly a week into the Omicron variant wave, spurring Mayor Bill de Blasio Monday to promise to bring city-run fixed-location testing sites back up to pre-surge levels, according to a report on The City website.

Testing centers operated by the city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation reported at least an hour wait at most sites by Monday afternoon, while New Yorkers at some locations — including Elmhurst and Woodhull hospitals in Queens — endured chilly two-hour slogs. Still, some New Yorkers said they spent over four hours in line, as was reported by The City.

On Tuesday morning, DeBlasio assured New Yorkers and others that no lockdowns would be put into effect due to the Omicron surge and that schools would remain open.

“No more shutdowns,” he said. “We’ve been through them. They were devastating. We can’t go through them again. In this case, we weather the storm because we were prepared with a high level of vaccination already, prepared with a strong health care system, prepared to get through. We need to all work together to get through these weeks, come out the other side, continue our recovery. No shutdowns, because that would devastate the lives of so many New Yorkers.”

While the city is not shutting down, numerous Broadway shows have canceled performances for the rest of the week due to the spike in cases, as was reported by abc7ny.com.

The AP reported that De Blasio, in the waning days of his term as mayor, will decide by Christmas whether the annual New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square will continue as planned. The event was small and socially distanced last year but de Blasio had hoped to hold it this year at “full strength.” That was before reports of COVID-19 cases ramped up again.

People wait in a long line to get tested for COVID-19 in Times Square, New York, Monday, Dec. 20, 2021. 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, a scramble for testing, a quandary over a major event and an exhausting sense of déjà vu. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Seven public schools are also closed due to coronavirus cases, Mayor de Blasio said, up from four on Monday. The mayor seemed to acknowledge staffing problems in the situation room, which provides real time reporting of cases in schools. He says they have “doubled the staffing.”

DeBlasio also offered a $100 cash incentive to anyone who receives their Covid booster shot at city-run facilities from now until December 31st. In a press briefing on Tuesday, the mayor said that getting vaccinated and getting the booster shot would be the bulwark in terms of controlling the rapid surge of the Omicron variant.

“Go get that booster now,” he said. “We want everyone as quickly as possible to go get those boosters, and we are going to make it even better for you with a new incentive — and an incentive that is here just in time for the holidays. Out there shopping for their families, it would be nice to have a little extra cash. So as of today, we are announcing a $100 incentive for everyone who goes out and gets a booster here in New York City between now and the end of the year.”

ABC7NY reported that DeBlasio admitted that the most helpful remedy are at-home testing kits which are in short supply, both from private companies and the federal government.

Dr. Sydney Sewall fills a syringe with the COVID-19 vaccine at the Augusta Armory, Tuesday, Dec. 21, 2021, in Augusta, Maine. Gov. Mills’ administration opened the vaccination clinic earlier this month. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

“That’s just a pure supply problem we’re banging into,” he said.

One of the sites opening Tuesday is in Washington Heights, one of eight new brick-and-mortar locations in addition to 17 mobile trucks deploying across the city, according to the abc7ny.com report. De Blasio said that by the end of the week, a total of 112 city-run sites will be operational.

However, the lines at those sites, while sometimes shorter than those at privately run locations, can still involve long wait times.

“I will say that many of the private facilities are reporting three-hour waits, not one-hour waits,” NYC Health + Hospitals CEO Dr. Mitchell Katz said.

City health officials said that whenever they receive more at-home rapid tests, they will distribute them to people in line for in-person tests, according to the abc7ny.com report.

“If you come to one of our sites, you can choose to wait in line or you’ll be able to walk away with a home kit,” said Dr. Ted Long, the city’s head of COVID testing and contact tracing.

New York City Mayor-Elect Eric Adams said Tuesday he would cancel his upcoming inauguration ceremony at Kings Theater in Brooklyn as COVID cases spike across the city. The ceremony was set to be held on January 1st in conjunction with the inaugurations of Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who begins his first full term, and incoming Comptroller Brad Lander.

“It is clear that our city is facing a formidable opponent in the Omicron variant of COVID-19, and that the spike in cases presents a serious risk to public health,” Adams said.

New York City has the nation’s highest new case rate, per CDC data, and is now averaging more new cases than at any other point in the pandemic. Cases in the city are trending up on an exponential curve, surging by about 640% in the last month. The U.S. is now reporting more than 132,000 new cases every day. Since the beginning of December, the case average has surged by over 50%, according to federal data.

New York State Governor Kathy Hochul said that the state on Monday broke another daily record for COVID infections, logging more than 23,000. Among the latest victims: Dr. Mary Bassett, the state’s health commissioner, who tested positive for the virus despite being vaccinated and boosted.

TheCity.com reported on Monday that Kathryn Garcia, the state’s director of operations, announced that Gov. Hochul’s office planned to distribute five million more COVID tests across the state by the end of the year, with 1.6 million tests headed to New York City, she said.

Another five million tests will be given out in January, with two million of them to be sent out to schools.

Garcia also announced the state plans to send a letter to President Joe Biden, calling on him to invoke the Defense Production Act to produce more tests, according to the report on TheCity.com site.

“We still need more and we need more partnership from the federal government,” she said.

“We need them to help make sure that there are tests available to anyone who needs it, because we will continue beating the drum that we want you to be able to take personal responsibility and protect your loved ones by knowing whether or not you are positive with COVID and to stop transmission,” Garcia added, as was reported by TheCity.com.

An Associated Press report indicated that the Omicron variant has raced ahead of other variants and is now the dominant version of the coronavirus in the U.S., accounting for 73% of new infections last week, federal health officials said Monday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers showed nearly a six-fold increase in omicron’s share of infections in only one week.

President Joe Biden stressed in a Dec. 21st speech the importance of getting vaccinated to protect from a wave of COVID-19 infections tied to the new omicron variant as Christmas approaches. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

In much of the country, it’s even higher. AP reported that Omicron is responsible for an estimated 90% or more of new infections in the New York area, the Southeast, the industrial Midwest and the Pacific Northwest. The national rate suggests that more than 650,000 omicron infections occurred in the U.S. last week.

Since the end of June, the delta variant had been the main version causing U.S. infections. As recently as the end of November, more than 99.5% of coronaviruses were delta, according to CDC data.

AP reported that CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said the new numbers reflect the kind of growth seen in other countries.

“These numbers are stark, but they’re not surprising,” she said.

The AP reported that scientists in Africa first sounded the alarm about omicron less than a month ago and on Nov. 26th the World Health Organization designated it as a “variant of concern.” The mutant has since shown up in about 90 countries.

Much about the omicron variant remains unknown, including whether it causes more or less severe illness. Early studies suggest the vaccinated will need a booster shot for the best chance at preventing omicron infection but even without the extra dose, vaccination still should offer strong protection against severe illness and death, according to the AP report.

“All of us have a date with omicron,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “If you’re going to interact with society, if you’re going to have any type of life, omicron will be something you encounter, and the best way you can encounter this is to be fully vaccinated.”

Adalja said he was not surprised by the CDC data showing omicron overtaking delta in the U.S., given what was seen in South Africa, the U.K. and Denmark, as was reported by the AP. He predicted spread over the holidays, including breakthrough infections among the vaccinated and serious complications among the unvaccinated that could stress hospitals already burdened by delta.

Dr. Eric Topol, head of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, said other countries had seen omicron’s fast growth, but the U.S. data showed “a remarkable jump in such a short time.”

The AP report indicated that Topol also said it’s unclear how much milder omicron really is compared with other variants. “That’s the big uncertainty now.”

The CDC’s estimates are based on thousands of coronavirus specimens collected each week through university and commercial laboratories and state and local health departments. Scientists analyze their genetic sequences to determine which versions of the COVID-19 viruses are most abundant.

On Monday, the CDC revised its estimate for omicron cases for the week that ended Dec. 11, after analyzing more samples. About 13% of the cases that week were from omicron, not the 3% previously reported. The week before, omicron accounted for just 0.4% of cases, as was reported by the AP.

CDC officials said they do not yet have estimates of how many hospitalizations or deaths are due to omicron.

Though there remain a lot of new infections caused by the delta variant, “I anticipate that over time that delta will be crowded out by omicron,” Walensky said.

Travelers wait for a shuttle but to arrive at the Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, Monday, Dec. 20, 2021. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health reported more than 3,500 new cases of COVID-19 on Sunday as the number of daily new cases tripled over the week. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

AP reported that with the omicron variant on the march, President Joe Biden announced in a Tuesday afternoon address that 500 million free rapid tests will be available to Americans as well as increased support for hospitals under strain and a redoubling of vaccination and boosting efforts.

In his Tuesday afternoon address, Biden detailed major changes to his COVID-19 winter plan, his hand forced by the arrival of the fast-spreading Omicron variant, whose properties are yet not fully understood by scientists, as was reported by the AP.

The world is confronting the prospect of a second straight holiday season with COVID-19 as families and friends begin to gather. Scientists don’t yet know whether omicron causes more serious disease, but they do know that vaccinations should offer strong protections against severe illness and death.

The AP reported that the Biden’s administration will purchase 500 million coronavirus rapid tests and ship them free to Americans starting in January. People will use a new website to order their tests, which will then be sent to them by U.S. mail at no charge, the White House said.

It marks a major shift for Biden, who earlier had called for many Americans to purchase the hard-to-find tests on their own and then seek reimbursement from their health insurance. For the first time, the U.S. government will send free COVID-19 tests directly to Americans, after more than a year of urging by public health experts, as was reported by the AP.

Experts had criticized Biden’s initial buy-first, get-paid-later approach as unwieldy and warned that the U.S. would face another round of problems with testing at a critical time. Testing advocates point to countries like the U.K. and Germany, which have distributed billions of tests to the public and recommend people test themselves twice a week.

The AP also reported that the federal government will also establish new testing sites and use the Defense Production Act to help manufacture more tests. The first new federally supported testing site will open in New York this week. The new testing sites will add to 20,000 already available. White House officials said they’re working with Google so that people will be able to find them by searching “free COVID test near me.”

Still, Biden’s testing surge would fall far short of the levels needed for all Americans to test at the recommended rate of twice weekly. The U.S. would need 2.3 billion tests per month for everyone 12 and older to do that, according to the nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation. That’s nearly five times more than the half-billion tests Biden will deploy, as was reported by the AP.

Currently, the U.S. can conduct about 600 million tests per month, with home tests accounting for about half, according to researchers from Arizona State University.

In another prong to Biden’s amped-up plan, he is prepared to deploy an additional 1,000 troops with medical skills to assist hospitals buckling under the virus surge. Additionally, he is immediately sending federal medical personnel to Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Arizona, New Hampshire and Vermont, as was indicated in the AP report. There are also plans to ready additional ventilators and protective equipment from the national stockpile, expanding hospital resources.

As a backstop, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will deploy hundreds of ambulances and paramedic teams so that if one hospital fills up, they can transport patients to open beds in other facilities. The AP reported that ambulances are already headed to New York and Maine, and paramedic teams are going to New Hampshire, Vermont and Arizona.

But vaccination remains the main defense, since it can head off disease in the first place. The government will stand up multiple vaccination sites and provide hundreds of personnel to administer shots. The AP reported that new rules will make it easier for pharmacists to work across state lines to administer a broader range of shots.

For those who are already fully vaccinated, a booster shot has been shown in lab tests to provide strong protection against omicron. Although reports of breakthrough cases abound, data show that vaccinated people who become infected are much less likely to suffer serious disease leading to hospitalization or death. To the unvaccinated, Biden delivered a stern admonition that they’re risking their lives and the lives of their loved ones.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at Monday’s press briefing that the Democratic president doesn’t plan to impose any lockdowns and will instead be encouraging people to get inoculated — and, if they’re eligible, to get their booster shot.

“This is not a speech about locking the country down. This is a speech about the benefits of being vaccinated,” Psaki told reporters.

“Our health experts assess that you are 14 times more likely to die of COVID if you have not been vaccinated versus vaccinated,” she said Monday.

(Sources: AP, thecity.nyc, abc7ny.com)

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