Public closures, canceled holiday plans? Omicron surges nationwide

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Angie Perrin and Robin Estrin

Crowds line up in Times Square on December 18, 2021 to get tested for COVID-19 as cases sharply rise in the city. Photo by Karla Ann Cote/NurPhoto.

The U.S. is seeing massive COVID-19 surges, including New York, due in part to the Omicron variant. The state reported more than 60,000 new cases this past weekend, the most since the start of the pandemic. The spike prompted “Saturday Night Live” to cancel its in-person audience hours before the show, Broadway stages to go dark, and dozens of professional sports games to be postponed. 

The Omicron variant is especially of concern because it’s apparently more transmissible than the Delta variant and other versions of COVID, and vaccinated and boosted people are still catching it, says Dr. Jay Varma, epidemiologist and Weill Cornell professor. 

“We're seeing a combination of two things. We're seeing both a reduction in the ability of the vaccines to protect you against the basic infection, but we're also seeing the fact that you're being exposed so many times, that the number of times your body's able to defend itself declines over time.”

Varma says he’s also worried about COVID staying in the air after an infected person has been in a room. 

“Even though it spreads by air, most of that is over what we call a short range, so it's people that are closer to you. The further away you get from somebody, the more those particles spread out in the air, and they don't hang around and cause you infection,” he explains. “We are hearing about outbreaks all the time right now, that are in people who haven't been close together, but they've simply shared room air, which is very reminiscent, unfortunately, of what happens with measles.”

But he notes that vaccinations still provide substantive protections from severe illness and death. 

“The most important benefit that you get from vaccines that includes either two doses of an mRNA vaccine, or three doses fully, is you see a dramatic reduction in your risk of ending up severely ill or dying from this disease. We definitely know that two doses of vaccine is beneficial. We know that three doses is even more beneficial against those severe outcomes.”

Could LA look like New York soon? 

Southern California hospitals are generally feeling confident right now, says Emily Alpert Reyes, public health reporter at the Los Angeles Times. She says they are still proceeding with elective surgeries and are better equipped today compared to March 2020. That’s due in part to the number of surges in the region and knowledge on how to treat COVID patients. 

But she points out that there is concern over medical staffing in hospitals because employees have been quitting. Varma adds that some staff members are also getting infected with COVID outside of the hospital.

“I can tell you what's happening in New York. … People [who are] demoralized [and] exhausted from almost two years of doing this, many of them are now getting sick as well, too,” he says. “We are facing a crisis on top of a crisis. … Now they're getting infected outside of the hospitals, which is complicating the staffing shortages even more.”

But even with the current COVID threat, Varma doesn't foresee mass closures of public places. 

“I can tell you from my experience, having previously run the response here in the city and worked on these problems in a number of different places, … across the country there is very little appetite from people and from businesses to go back to the times when we had mass closures,” Varma explains. 

Should holiday family gatherings be canceled?

Varma says the decision to forgo celebrations is personal, but he strongly recommends planning gatherings around the most vulnerable family members.

“People need to recognize that gathering with your loved ones, particularly given the amount of time we've been separated from people, is essential to our health. Our mental and physical and spiritual health all depend on human connection,” he says. “But if you have people who are either unvaccinated, or they've been vaccinated but have other high-risk medical conditions, you need to think very cautiously about how you could do those gatherings safely.” 

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