Omicron drives Covid surge but New York a long way from pandemic’s early days
America’s biggest city is seeing another winter spike, but with good vaccines and a new message many residents say this wave feels different
Edward Helmore in New York
In the spring of 2020, Hart Island, a mile from City Island in the Bronx, was a focal point of grief in New York. It was here, at the city’s public cemetery or potter’s field, the final resting place of more than a million people, that officialsordered trenches dug to accommodate those the coronavirus was expected to kill.s
The trenches were never filled. Many bodies were returned to funeral parlors or stored in mobile freezers on Randall’s Island, better known for music festivals and the Frieze art fair than cold storage of corpses.
Last week, as New York was once again in the grip of a pandemic spike, the ferry jetty was devoid of morbid feelings, even with infections running at a 35% positivity rate, close to five times the peak of last winter.
“We haven’t seen anyone here – or any of the trucks coming like they used to,” said one Hart Island worker.
The winter Covid wave has hit the Bronx hard. The borough has the city’s highest positivity rate, in some neighborhoods near 50%. But for many this wave feels different, not least in the way leaders and health officials are treating it.
Last week, Governor Kathy Hochul ordered hospitals to start reporting numbers of patients being treated for symptoms of Covid-19 separately from those who test positive after being admitted for other reasons.
The general sense of weariness – and wariness – around official guidance may have reached a breaking point when the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised that quarantine times for anyone testing positive would be cut from 10 days to five – guidance interpreted by many to mean that Omicron was milder than its predecessors.
In New York the number of hospital admissions is similar to the peak in April 2020 – 11,000 – but fives times more people are being found to have the virus. Stays in hospital, at least for the vaccinated, are shorter.
The virus is still causing havoc. The state reported 130 deaths on Thursday, the highest single-day toll since the vaccination rollout. New York City has reported service suspended on three of 22 subway lines and reduced on others, because 21% of operators and conductors are sick. In the most recent figures, 21% of the NYPD was out, as were 30% of emergency medical service personnel and 17% of fire officials.
But under new mayor Eric Adams and Hochul, the message is different from former governor Andrew Cuomo’s “New York tough” message or that of Bill de Blasio, the former mayor who ordered a million public school students into remote learning for more than a year.
Adams said plan A was for classes to remain in person. The city, he said, had put 1m Covid tests in schools. “The safest place for a child is in school,” Adams said – scaring many parents, especially those with children too young to be vaccinated.
Fifteen miles south of the Bronx, in lower Manhattan, some said Covid was losing some of its power.
“People are doing what they need to do to stay safe,” said Courtney McCleskey. “This seems like the new normal.”
Visiting from Georgia, she said she planned to attend Broadway musicals on three consecutive nights, even as many stages have been forced to close by cast and crew infections. Charley Bailey, also visiting from the south, said New Yorkers seemed more adapted to masking and vaccine requirements.
“It’s seems like people are taking it way more seriously than they do in east Tennessee, where getting people to wear masks is impossible. People here seem much more agreeable to protecting to each other.”
New Yorkers wait in line to get tested in Times Square.
New Yorkers wait in line to get tested in Times Square. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Others said that after the CDC cut quarantine in half, they stopped taking government directives so seriously.
“The reality is that everyone is fatigued by the pandemic, and at this point everyone knows they should be doing what they can to stay safe. But at this point we’re in a ‘fuck it’ phase,” said Ben Martin, visiting from Boston.
On Friday, CDC director Rochelle Walensky said she would assume greater control over messaging.To Yascha Mounk, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, one measure of when a pandemic ends is when people become accustomed to it.
“By that definition, the massive surge of Omicron infections coursing through scores of developed countries without eliciting more than a half-hearted response marks the end of the pandemic,” Mounk wrote in the Atlantic.
Politicians are singing a similar tune, with a back-to-normal message subject to masking and vaccination.
“We are refining everything, our whole quarantine idea,” Hochul said. “Everyone was staying home for 10 days; they might be asymptomatic for five days and still have five days, which was paralyzing to our economy. Staying at home is widely disruptive. We can’t do that. That is as disruptive as saying stay remote.”
Adams has said it is his priority to get New Yorkers back to work, proposing a three-day office week, expanding to five.
“Covid is here. We have to learn to live with it in a smart way,” Adams said.
The issue, the mayor said, is that 30% office occupancy cannot sustain businesses. Restaurants which boomed in the fall are now emptying again. Having survived the first, crippling phases of the pandemic, they are seeing business dry up.
At Pardon My French, a restaurant in the East Village, business was good from March to December. Just before the holidays, it dried up.
“Discussions always become about Covid but there are so many other things touching people’s lives way more profoundly,” said owner Valentin Leleu.
New York is a long way from March 2020, when the city was in the grip of a paralyzing fear, residents haunted by a near constant wail of sirens. But the city is not normal either, despite many residents’ efforts.
At Lovely Day in Nolita, owner Kazusa Jibiki said that combined with rising overheads, Omicron was a cruel blow.
“We are concerned how we’ll survive if this lasts,” he said.