North-east US states deploy soldiers, home tests in Covid-19 battle

People queueing for Covid-19 tests in Times Square in New York, on Dec 13, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - New York is requiring masks in all indoor places across the state. Massachusetts is sending free home Covid-19 test kits to its poorest areas. Maine has activated its National Guard to help hospitals.

In the US north-east, officials are trying every tactic to control a winter surge that has emergency rooms overflowing and infection rates soaring.

Admissions of patients with Covid-19 climbed 14.4 per cent across the nation in the week ended Dec 9, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.

The rate was more than double - 33.5 per cent - in New England.

The surge is happening in some of the nation's most vaccinated states amid colder weather and holiday gatherings.

In Massachusetts, where 88 per cent of the population has had at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, the state will send out more than two million antigen rapid tests to the poorest communities, Governor Charlie Baker said on Monday (Dec 13).

A New York state mask mandate for all indoor public places takes effect on Monday. That includes restaurants, stores, houses of worship and office buildings that do not have vaccine requirements for entry.

The order is directed at areas outside New York City, which already has tough restrictions and the state's lowest Covid-19 rates. As at Dec 13, New York City's positive-test rate was 2.8 per cent, while western New York's was 9.4 per cent.

"These temporary measures will help us get through the holiday season safely," Governor Kathy Hochul said. "I share everyone's frustration that we have gotten to this point, especially with the vaccine at our disposal."

Since the nation's Thanksgiving holiday on Nov 25, New York state's seven-day average case rate has increased 43 per cent and hospitalisations have increased 29 per cent.

While the percentage of New Yorkers fully vaccinated continues to increase - gaining 2 percentage points from Thanksgiving weekend - the pace is not fast enough to curb the spread of the virus, Ms Hochul said.

New York City is going further than other jurisdictions in imposing a vaccine mandate on private-sector workers starting Dec 27.

"You're seeing the trend lines with cases going up, hospitalisations going up, so we need to attack on all fronts," Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a briefing on Monday.

"We can see the handwriting on the wall," he said, referring to the shutdowns happening in Europe.

In New Jersey, hospitalisations are at the highest since the end of April. While most of the new cases are among the unvaccinated, the state is seeing more infections among those who have had two doses of the vaccine and are experiencing waning immunity, according to Governor Phil Murphy, who urged residents to get their boosters.

Hospitals in the state are struggling to balance the increase in Covid-19 patients with patients injured in car accidents, those getting operations delayed last year and those with mental health problems.

"There are shifts where we're teetering," chief executive of University Hospital in Newark Shereef Elnahal said in a Dec 10 interview.

"I'm concerned about capacity right now. If there is yet another Covid-19 surge, I'm not sure what we're going to be able to do."

New Jersey is opening its third mega site for vaccinations in Somerset County on Dec 15, the one-year anniversary of the state's first vaccinations.

As the state sees a surge in cases amid the holiday season with its positivity rate at 8 per cent, its Health Department is partnering with Vault Health to administer free at-home Covid-19 saliva testing kits. The tests will be sent through the mail and users will be guided virtually by a medical professional on how to administer them.

The Delta variant remains the predominant variant in the United States, but officials are preparing for more cases caused by the Omicron strain, first identified in South Africa.

Fear of Omicron, which appears more transmissible but perhaps less severe, contributed to a 30 per cent increase in vaccine doses in the US in the week ended Dec 9, federal data shows.

Maine, New Hampshire and New York have activated the National Guard to help hospitals treat Covid-19 patients.

New Hampshire, which has the highest seven-day case rate in the US, is also sending residents free at-home rapid Covid-19 tests. Within a day of the Nov 29 offer to send tests to any resident, all 800,000 were taken.

Another round was pledged.

The current Massachusetts surge rivals the levels of a year ago. Mr Baker emphasised that the surge would be worse if not for the state's high vaccination rate. Even so, hospitals are straining to the point they are cutting back on elective procedures. Other New England states are in similar straits, with Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont setting records in recent days for cases and hospitalisations.

Rapid tests "have proven to be a very effective tool, especially for people who are going to be gathering indoors with folks either they don't know or they're not normally around", Mr Baker told reporters on Monday.

"That's probably, heading into the holidays, one of the more important ways people can use them."

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