NEW YORK: COVID-19 cases surged in New York City and around the United States over the weekend, dashing hopes for a more normal holiday season, resurrecting restrictions and stretching the country's testing infrastructure ahead of holiday travel and gatherings.
The spike is alarming public health officials, who fear an explosion of infections after the Christmas and New Year's holidays.
The fast-spreading new Omicron variant of the coronavirus has become dominant in the United States with lightning speed. The variant now accounts for 73 per cent of US coronavirus infections based on sequencing data for the week ended Dec 18, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Monday.
With the new variant in circulation, COVID-19 cases are now doubling in one and a half to three days in areas with community transmission, the World Health Organization said on Saturday.
Lines for COVID-19 tests wrapped around the block in New York, Washington, DC, and other US cities over the weekend as people clamoured to find out if they were infected before celebrating the holidays with family.
"I just want to make sure before seeing my wife's 70-year-old mom that I'm negative," said David Jochnowitz while waiting for a test in Washington.
With a rapid rise in infections, Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser on Monday reinstated an indoor mask mandate until the end of January and required government workers to get vaccinated, including a booster shot.
"I think we're all tired of it," Bowser told reporters. "I'm tired of it too, but we have to respond to what's happening in our city and what's happening in our nation."
In New York City, COVID-19 cases rose 60 per cent in the week that ended on Sunday as the Omicron variant spread rapidly around the US northeast. New York has set records for the most new cases reported in a single day since the pandemic started for three consecutive days.
"It is a predictor of what the rest of the country will see soon, and the minimum - since NYC is highly vaccinated - of what other parts of the country will experience in under-vaccinated cities and states," said Georges Benjamin, executive director for American Public Health Association.
Many Broadway productions cancelled performances as cast and crew have become infected. The popular "Hamilton" production on Monday extended cancellations until after Christmas due to breakthrough COVID-19 infections.
Breakthrough infections are rising among the 61 per cent of the country's fully vaccinated population, including the 30 per cent who have gotten booster shots.
Omicron appears to be causing milder symptoms in vaccinated populations, and health experts remain optimistic this wave might not cause the same spikes in hospitalisations and deaths as previous surges.
'JUST STAY HOME'
New York City Health Commissioner Dr Dave Chokshi on Monday said that while new COVID-19 cases have "increased sharply," hospitalisations have not jumped at the same rate. He credited vaccinations and booster shots, which help prevent severe illness, and urged that more were needed to build a "sea wall" against the variant.
The spread of Omicron prompted Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, on Monday to require all students, faculty and staff to get a COVID-19 booster shot for the upcoming spring semester.
Nationally, cases rose 9 per centin the past week but are up 57 per cent since the start of December, according to a Reuters tally. Hospitalised COVID-19 patients have increased 26 per cent this month, with hospitals in some areas already strained by the Delta variant.
While cases climbed in the US Northeast, Midwest hospitals were still dealing with a surge in patients from a Delta wave this fall. Michigan, Indiana and Ohio have the nation's most hospitalised COVID patients per 100,000 residents, a Reuters tally found.
In New York City, the daily test rate reached an average of 130,000 per day, Mayor Bill de Blasio told reporters on Monday, more than double three weeks ago.
With demand for tests exceeding capacity, de Blasio and the White House confirmed that they were discussing how to increase testing availability and provide other resources the city needs to deal with the COVID-19 surge.
President Joe Biden will deliver a major speech on how to deal with the Omicron variant on Tuesday, the White House said.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul said on Monday she was ramping up the state’s testing program, with 1 million kits arriving this week and the same amount in each of the next two weeks.
“More and more people are going to be testing positive from this," she said. For those who do, she advised: "Just stay home, do not go out. Don't go to work. Don't go see your family."
Omicron's arrival is a headwind for an economic revival in New York that already lags the rest of the country, especially where employment is concerned.
The pandemic delivered an even larger body blow to the city than the country because of the outsized role played by tourism, leisure and hospitality, which suffered the worst under lockdowns and travel restrictions. New York's jobless rate topped out at 20 per cent in the spring of 2020 - more than 5 percentage points above the US average, and is still 9 per cent, more than twice the national rate.