NEW YORK (REUTERS) - Coronavirus cases surged in New York City and around the United States over the weekend, dashing hopes for a more normal holiday season and stretching the country's testing infrastructure just days before many families gather to celebrate Christmas.
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 U.S. coronavirus infections based on sequencing data for the week ended Dec 18, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said on Monday (Dec 20).
In New York, new Covid-19 cases rose 60 per cent in the week that ended on Sunday as the Omicron variant spreads 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 Mr 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.
With the new variant in circulation, the number of Covid-19 cases is now doubling in one and a half to three days in areas with community transmission, the World Health Organisation said on Saturday.
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," Ms 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."
The variant has dampened holiday spirits among the vaccinated with rising breakthrough infections reported even among those who received booster shots.
Omicron appears to be causing much 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.
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 cent in 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 climb in the Northeast, Midwest hospitals are still dealing with a surge in patients from a Delta wave this fall.
Michigan, Indiana and Ohio have the nation's most hospitalised Covid-19 patients per 100,000 residents, a Reuters tally found.
On Monday, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced he tested positive for Covid-19. US Senators Cory Booker and Elizabeth Warren said the same on Sunday. All three said they had been vaccinated and boosted.
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 holidays with family.
"I just want to make sure before seeing my wife's 70-year-old mom that I'm negative," said Mr David Jochnowitz while waiting for a test in Washington.
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. But demand for tests continues to exceed capacity.
"We're seeing a supply problem that needs to be addressed," de Blasio said, noting that the city was working with the White House and private sector to help increase testing availability.
The city's Covid-19 vaccine mandate for childcare workers, affecting some 102,000 people, was due to go into effect on Monday. Governor Kathy Hochul said on Monday that she was ramping up the state's testing programme, 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 already lagging the rest of the country, especially where employment is concerned. The pandemic delivered an even larger body blow to the city than the country as a whole 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.
The roll-out of vaccines early in 2021 helped spur some improvement as restaurants were allowed to resume indoor dining with fewer limits and some businesses including a number of Wall Street firms began reopening offices, bringing an uptick of commuters into dormant business districts.
The more recent resumption of international travel brought foreign tourists to New York for the first time in nearly two years. Still, the city's job market continues to struggle.
The unemployment rate at 9 per cent is more than twice the national rate, and the work force - the pool of potential labour - has fallen every month since April.
While city life has not shut down as it did in the early days of the pandemic, some businesses have closed due to positive tests among staff or an abundance of caution.
Henrietta Hudson, an iconic LGBTQ hangout in New York City, announced it will close for an "extended holiday break".
"We hope to offer you a New Year's Eve experience... but will have to wait and see," the bar said in an Instagram post on Sunday.