Updated Dec 17, 2021 - Health

New York City braces for another coronavirus surge

Illustration of the hand of the statue of liberty wearing a medical glove
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

New York City — America's original pandemic epicenter — is displaying warning signs of yet another drastic surge of the virus, this time likely driven by the Omicron variant.

Why it matters: Given how quickly the variant appears to spread, New York's experience will likely be replicated around the country. But this time, the city has the benefit of an above-average vaccination rate to help it avoid becoming a worst-case scenario.

State of play: The citywide case rate is spiking, particularly in Staten Island and Manhattan. Two-thirds of Staten Island residents and 78% of Manhattanites are fully vaccinated.

  • "Omicron is here in NYC and spreading quickly. We’re seeing a surge of #COVID19 cases ahead of the holidays – the 7-day average for new cases has tripled in the last month," health commissioner Dave Chokshi tweeted yesterday.
  • Hospitalizations are also on the rise, and the percentage of coronavirus tests coming back positive doubled in three days.
  • Restaurants are shutting down, colleges have axed events and several Broadway shows have been canceled.
  • CDC director Rochelle Walensky has said that New York and New Jersey are detecting Omicron cases at a much higher rate than the U.S. average.

Yes, but: Omicron could cause massive caseloads in NYC and drive up hospitalization rates, but the city's above-average vaccination rate will ultimately blunt the wave's impact.

  • Emerging data has found that two doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines don't work very well at preventing Omicron infection, but are still protective against severe disease.
  • That means the unvaccinated — and thus places with low vaccination rates — are still at the highest risk.

Between the lines: Other cities could very well be seeing similar Omicron surges that aren't yet reflected in the data. Cases are rising across the country, particularly in the Northeast.

  • But that's been true for weeks, driven by the Delta variant. Omicron is poised to turbocharge this growth.

What we're watching: All of this is likely just the beginning of the Omicron effect.

  • Regardless of what politicians do, life can't go on as normal in the face of massive virus outbreaks, although Americans will inevitably have different risk tolerances over the coming weeks.
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