As virus cases surge, New Yorkers feel a familiar anxiety

‘It feels like last year, last winter, despite the vaccines and despite the boosters’

 

Holiday plans abruptly reversing, restaurants closing, Broadway shows going dark while, blocks away, long lines form outside testing sites – it’s as if it were 2020 all over again.

The startling rise in coronavirus infections has whiplashed New York City and the surrounding region. Once more, most everyone seems to know someone who is infected. Millions of people who have followed the city’s guidelines and received two or even three vaccination shots, who have in recent weeks and months enjoyed a return to many of their old practices – riding the subway, dining indoors, partying with friends – face an uncertain future.

“It’s scary – it feels like we’ve been here before,” said Emma Clippinger (36), waiting in a long queue outside a testing site in Fort Greene, a neighbourhood in Brooklyn, on Thursday. “It feels like last year, last winter, despite the vaccines and despite the boosters, and it’s the same game plan, but it also feels like we get defeated often.”

New York City and the surrounding northeast, the epicentre of the coronavirus’s arrival to the US in 2020, is being buffeted by a new surge in infections that seems poised to disrupt the long awaited return to normality. New case reports in New York state have skyrocketed nearly 60 per cent in the past two weeks.

“It is clear that the Omicron variant is here in New York City in full force,” mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday.

Deidre Depke (59), waiting in line for a test on the Upper West Side, didn’t need the mayor to tell her. “Monday, I wasn’t even thinking about it,” she said, “and Thursday, I’m in a panic.”

An average of more than 10,600 infections were being identified each day in New York state, more than any other state, and hospitalisations were also increasing, although more slowly. The city’s test positivity rate doubled in just three days, up to 7.8 per cent on Sunday compared with 3.9 per cent the previous Thursday, raising alarm bells among city officials and residents alike.

Vaccines

The number of new cases reported statewide on Thursday alone – 18,276, more than 8,300 of them in New York City – was the highest since at least January. Hospitalisations, though, remain at a fraction of what they were in the city’s deadly first virus wave, with about 1,000 people hospitalised in New York City now, compared with 15,000 in April 2020.

It remains unknown to what extent Omicron will cause serious illness. Scientists believe that vaccines will still provide protection against the worst outcomes, and boosters are likely to provide additional protection against infection, preliminary data suggests.

The public health picture in other states was also growing bleaker. Connecticut is averaging more than 2,600 new cases a day, up from about 330 at the start of November, and Rhode Island is adding cases at the highest rate in the nation. Michigan, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania have the highest rates of coronavirus hospitalisations.

In Rhode Island, Dr Wilfredo Giordano-Perez, who sits on the governor’s vaccine committee, said the number of people scaling back holiday plans still seemed fairly small. “I wish I was hearing more of that,” he said. “I think people are going to take their chances, with this idea that they’ve done everything they can do up until this point.”

In New York City, de Blasio announced six steps to address the surge, including expanding the hours and capacity of testing sites, distributing one million free high grade KN-95 masks and 500,000 home tests through community organisations, stepping up enforcement of mask and vaccine mandates at businesses and encouraging more New Yorkers to get boosters.

Only 1.5 million New Yorkers, or about 22 per cent of adults, have got either a booster or an additional dose, according to city statistics. Meanwhile, 82 per cent of adult New Yorkers are fully vaccinated. “We have seen a very substantial increase in Covid cases in the last few days,” de Blasio said on Thursday. “People need to get vaccinated right now, get that booster right now.”

“If they are not feeling well, get tested right now. It’s an urgent situation,” he added.

At-home testing kits, piled high just weeks ago with shoppers showing little interest, are selling out at some stores. The governor’s office Thursday announced plans to create a system for residents to request that coronavirus tests be sent to their homes.

Broadway shows

With a new year approaching, many corners of the city seemed to be sliding backward. Some restaurants have had to shut their doors, not because the city forced them to, but because their staff members tested positive or were exposed to the virus, and there was no one to replace them.

Many Broadway shows, so soon after their celebrated return in September, have once again gone dark for limited stretches, often with hours’ notice, as cast or crew members test positive.

New York University cancelled all “nonessential” gatherings, from holiday parties to graduation ceremonies, and strongly advised that finals be moved online. Cornell University declared a Code Red on its Ithaca campus, after more than 900 community members tested positive in a week, despite near-perfect vaccination rates.

Companies have called off everything from midtown Manhattan holiday parties to return-to-office timetables and in-person meetings. Corporations such as Citigroup and Apple are asking employees to work from home. JPMorgan Chase moved a January health care conference to online, while Goldman Sachs urged workers to cancel holiday parties.

New rules impact everyone – even the audiences for the Rockettes. The city will be sending inspectors to Radio City Music Hall and other venues to make sure they are checking vaccination cards among children as young as five, who need one dose of vaccine to attend indoor shows.

New York governor Kathy Hochul addressed the matter at a news conference Thursday. “We’re asking people to follow common sense. Get vaccinated, get boosted. Please don’t take a chance,” she said. “People have a right to stay alive, and the people that you affect have a right to live as well.”

Even though data has suggested that the unvaccinated remain most at risk, that was little comfort to vaccinated New Yorkers, watching the plans they had waited so long to make evaporate as even vaccinated people test positive in breakthrough cases.

“It’s literally all I’ve been thinking about,” said Sarah Gancher, a teacher at the New School, sitting in Madison Square Park with a bag of at-home testing kits she had just purchased. She said eight of her fully vaccinated friends had tested positive this week. “I’m really heartsick and worried. This to me feels like the day Broadway shut down, again.”

The old threat calculations surrounding family and friends are back: Do I go or do I stay home? Who else will be there, and are they at greater risk? Are they vaccinated ? And does that really matter?

Clippinger’s holiday plans in the city, including her mother’s visit from Boston, are shifting beneath her feet. “My mom is probably going to make her visit very short, just to kiss everyone and then go back to her partner,” she said. “In the past, it would have been museums and Broadway, and eating at all of our favourite restaurants – not this year.”

Familiar insecurities

Meera Ilahi (22) took a test on Thursday after several of her friends attended the raucous, generally maskless Santa Con bar crawl on Saturday – even though she did not. “I’m kind of nervous because a lot of people I know who went out this weekend are testing positive,” she said as she waited to learn her own results. “And then on TikTok, I’ve been scrolling and, like, every video I kept getting was, like, ‘I am in New York, and I have Covid.’”

The news brought to the fore familiar insecurities from the start of the pandemic. “I’m worried about financial stress, mostly,” said Tristan Ramirez, a 23-year-old Washington Heights resident waiting for a test at the subway station on West 72nd Street and Broadway. “If I get sick and have to take a lot of time off, I’m not going to get paid.”

Vivienne Taylor (62), a Queens resident, waited in a testing line hours before her scheduled flight to her hometown in Jamaica on Thursday evening. The airport and journey would be her last public outings for the time being, she said. “I’m not going to be complacent,” Taylor said. “I’m going to go home, I’m going to stay home and just keep to myself.”

The fatigue of the pandemic – the worrying, then relief, then more worrying and more masks – reaches all the way to the governor’s office, as Hochul made clear on Thursday. She was asked when it would all end, and she took a deep breath, rubbed her hands together and looked skyward before answering with a seemingly forced smile.

“There is no person on this earth who can give an answer to the question ‘When will this end?’” she said. “Nor can I.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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