New York City is already seeing a spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations as the holiday season gets underway.
Although holiday travel and gatherings have just started and the coldest days lie ahead, the city just recorded a spike of 2.22percent in COVID-19 positive test rate – the highest since September, Bloomberg reported.
More than 100 patients were hospitalized with the virus just on Friday, marking a 25 percent spike from roughly two weeks ago. New York City recorded 485 people hospitalized due to the virus on November 27, over 100 more than two weeks ago.
City and health officials have already warned New Yorkers that the worst is yet to come as more cases are expected to be recorded after the Thanksgiving weekend, and the country grapples with the threat of the Omicron variant, which was first detected in South Africa.
On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio confirmed that no cases of the variant have yet been recorded in the city, but said there were fears that it could spread rapidly to the city.
He reissued advice saying that all New Yorkers, regardless of vaccination status should wear masks indoors, including at grocery stores, in offices and gyms.
At the state level, Governor Kathy Hochul, who declared a state of emergency on Saturday, reported 2,756 hospitalizations on Saturday, up from 1,915 a week before.
In an effort to curb the spread, Hochul said she will require New York State nursing home and adult care facility operators and administrators to make booster doses available to all of their residents.
The trend continues to be that hospitalizations and deaths are more common among those unvaccinated, with 17 hospitalization per 100,000 residents for those who have not received the jab as opposed to less than two hospitalizations per 100,000 for those who have been inoculated.
Hochul on Friday declared a state of emergency as COVID transmission reached rates not seen since April 2020, while insisting that the troubling new variant of COVID that first emerged in Botswana is ‘coming.’
More than 100 patients were hospitalized because of the virus just on Friday, marking a 25 percent spike from roughly two weeks ago
The trend continues to be that hospitalizations and deaths are more common among those unvaccinated, with 17 hospitalization per 100,000 residents for those who have not received the jab as opposed to less than two hospitalizations per 100,000 for those who have been inoculated
Although holiday travel and gatherings have just started and the coldest days lay ahead, the city just recorded a spike of 2.22percent in COVID-19 positive test rate – the highest in two months
The variant has not been detected in the US after the White House banned travel to eight nations on Friday, but Dr Anthony Fauci warned that a fifth wave could still be coming and it is ‘inevitable’ for the variant to be eventually detected in America.
‘We all know when you have a virus that has already gone to multiple countries, inevitably it will be here,’ Fauci said on ABC’s This Week on Sunday.
He urged Americans to get their booster shots, or their initial jabs if they had yet to get vaccinated – ‘if we do that successfully… we can mitigate any increase.’
Earlier on Friday, the US banned flights from eight Southern African countries to try and prevent the mutant strain, Omicron, from arriving. The ban goes into effect on Monday, meaning direct flights from Johannesburg will still land in the U.S. over the weekend.
On Friday night a flight from South Africa landed in the Netherlands, with ‘dozens’ of people infected with the Omicron. All passengers on board have been quarantined, and are being tested.
Hochul said that all non-urgent procedures could be postponed beginning December 3 if the hospital’s capacity falls dangerously low.
If a hospital finds that it has less than 10 percent of ‘staffed bed capacity’ free, then it will be permitted to cancel non-urgent, or elective, procedures, she ruled.
She also issued a declaration of disaster emergency, noting that COVID transmission is at a level not seen since April 2020. The declaration unlocks sweeping powers for her to take emergency measures, without the usual state congressional approval.
‘We continue to see warning signs of spikes in COVID this winter, and while the new Omicron variant has yet to be detected in New York State, it’s coming,’ Hochul tweeted.
The CDC said they had not detected any Omicron cases so far nationwide, and were confident they would find them quickly.
‘No cases of this variant have been identified in the U.S. to date,’ it said.
‘CDC is continuously monitoring variants and the U.S. variant surveillance system has reliably detected new variants in this country.
‘We expect Omicron to be identified quickly, if it emerges in the U.S.’
Kathy Hochul, the governor of New York, on Friday warned the state that the new COVID variant, Omicron, was on its way, tweeting: ‘It’s coming’. She issued an executive order allowing hospitals whose bed capacity falls dangerously low to cancel elective operations
President Joe Biden on Friday banned travel from eight African countries – shaded red in the map. South Africa is the only one to have direct flights to the United States, with 13 a week. Now citizens of the eight countries, or anyone who has been there recently, are unable to enter the US
A nurse operates a ventilator for a patient with COVID-19 who went into cardiac arrest and was revived by staff at a hospital in Yonkers in April 2020. COVID transmission is now as high as it was then, the NY governor said on Friday
President Joe Biden confirmed on Friday that travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region – Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi – had been halted.
The new variant was first found in Botswana and has since moved to South Africa, where it is spreading rapidly through six provinces.
It has also been found in Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium – and, as of Friday night, the Netherlands.
Hochul’s declaration of a disaster emergency acknowledges that the state is struggling – even before Omicron possibly hits.
‘A disaster has occurred in New York State, for which the affected local governments are unable to respond adequately,’ the declaration states. ‘New York is now experiencing COVID-19 transmission at rates the State has not seen since April 2020.’
‘The rate of new COVID-19 hospital admissions has been increasing over the past month to over 300 new admissions a day.’
It means that she can acquire pandemic supplies and enact the emergency hospital plan. Hochul’s predecessor, Andrew Cuomo, had declared a disaster emergency on March 7, 2020.
It ran until June 24 of this year and was ended amid controversy, with Cuomo’s critics saying he had used the emergency powers to consolidate his own personal power and rule in an authoritarian way, bypassing the legislature.
COVID cases in New York are on the rise again, as this data from John Hopkins University shows
Hospitalizations in New York peaked in April 2020, but are again climbing
Dr Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist, told DailyMail.com he agreed with the travel ban, but that more stringent quarantine measures should be brought in
Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, said initial data from the variant was worrying and border restrictions should be imposed.
‘Looks like vaccine evasion could be real with this variant,’ he tweeted, pointing out that the two patients in Hong Kong who had the variant were both doubled-jabbed with the Pfizer vaccine.
One of the two had recently been in Southern Africa. That person then passed it on to a second person, quarantining in the same hotel.
‘It’s very airborne,’ Feigl-Ding said. ‘The hotel guests were in different room across the hallway from each other. Environmental samples found the virus in 25 of 87 swabs across both rooms.’
He added: ‘I think border and travel restrictions make sense. Especially since Hong Kong only caught the case because of a mandatory hotel quarantine. Which countries in the west still have that??? Almost none.’
Feigl-Ding told DailyMail.com that he was assessing the early data, and it was of concern.
‘I think it’s pretty serious,’ he said. ‘We’re not 100 per cent certain, and the data is early. ‘But if you look at how it appears to be lining up, it’s bad. There’s a great risk of this being a Pandemic 2.0 virus.’
Feigel-Ding, who taught at Harvard for over 15 years, and specialized in Ebola tracing during the 2014 outbreak, said there were significant concerns that the virus could infect those already vaccinated, and those who had been infected before.
‘There are 32 mutations, so it’s really, really scary,’ he said. ‘It could be more severe, or it could be more contagious. It’s much, much worse if it’s more contagious. And in South Africa, positivity rates went from one to 30 in a week, suggesting it’s highly contagious.
‘It’s surging across six provinces at the same time.’
Feigel-Ding supported Friday’s travel ban, but said Omicron was ‘probably already worldwide’.
He said Americans should step up their COVID precautions: making sure they got their boosters, which he said tripled the protection, and using premium-quality face masks, rather than simple cloth ones.
He said employees and hosts should be mindful of ventilation, and travelers arriving in hotel rooms should be sure to open windows and allow fresh air in. It was a mistake to remove face masks in enclosed spaces recently vacated by others, he said – even if you are the only person in the room – as the virus can linger in the air.
Feigel-Ding said he ‘hated’ Hochul’s announcement that non-urgent surgical procedures could, in the worst-case scenario, be cancelled again – pointing out that surgery for cancer patients, plus knee and hip replacements, were categorized as ‘elective’.
‘This should not be the new normal,’ he said.
‘We should not resign ourselves to this virus. The price of it becoming endemic is very high.’
Why is Omicron so scary?
What is so concerning about the variant?
Experts say it is the ‘worst variant they have ever seen’ and are alarmed by the number of mutations it carries.
The variant — which the World Health Organization has named Omicron — has 32 mutations on the spike protein — the most ever recorded and twice as many as the currently dominant Delta strain.
Experts fear the changes could make the vaccines 40 per cent less effective in a best-case scenario.
This is because so many of the changes on B.1.1.529 are on the virus’s spike protein.
The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognise the version of the spike from older versions of the virus.
The Botswana variant has around 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein. The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognize the version of the spike protein from older versions of the virus. But the mutations may make the spike protein look so different that the body’s immune system struggles to recognize it and fight it off. And three of the spike mutations (H665Y, N679K, P681H) help it enter the body’s cells more easily. Meanwhile, it is missing a membrane protein (NSP6) which was seen in earlier iterations of the virus, which experts think could make it more infectious. And it has two mutations (R203K and G204R) that have been present in all variants of concern so far and have been linked with infectiousness
But because the spike protein looks so different on the new strain, the body’s immune system may struggle to recognise it and fight it off.
It also includes mutations found on the Delta variant that allow it to spread more easily.
Experts warn they won’t know how much more infectious the virus is for at least two weeks and may not know its impact on Covid hospitalizations and deaths for up to six weeks.
What mutations does the variant have?
The Botswana variant has more than 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein.
It carries mutations P681H and N679K which are ‘rarely seen together’ and could make it yet more jab resistant.
These two mutations, along with H655Y, may also make it easier for the virus to sneak into the body’s cells.
And the mutation N501Y may make the strain more transmissible and was previously seen on the Kent ‘Alpha’ variant and Beta among others.
Two other mutations (R203K and G204R) could make the virus more infectious, while a mutation that is missing from this variant (NSP6) could increase its transmissibility.
It also carries mutations K417N and E484A that are similar to those on the South African ‘Beta’ variant that made it better able to dodge vaccines.
But it also has the N440K, found on Delta, and S477N, on the New York variant — which was linked with a surge of cases in the state in March — that has been linked to antibody escape.
Other mutations it has include G446S, T478K, Q493K, G496S, Q498R and Y505H, although their significance is not yet clear.
Is it a variant of concern?
The World Health Organization has classified the virus as a ‘variant of concern’, the label given to the highest-risk strains.
This means WHO experts have concluded its mutations allow it to spread faster, cause more severe illness or hamper the protection from vaccines.
Where has the variant been detected so far?
The variant has so far been spotted in five nations: South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium.
Most cases have been spotted in Gauteng, a province in north east South Africa where Johannesburg is based.
The first case was uploaded to international variant database GISAID by Hong Kong and was spotted in someone who travelled to the country from South Africa.
No cases have been seen in the UK. But scientists do not sequence every positive Covid sample in the UK and not everyone who catches the virus will take a test.
This means there could be people infected with the variant in Britain.
What is the UK doing about the variant?
The Health Secretary announced last night six countries would be added to the red list from midday on Friday November 26.
The red-listed countries are: South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe. This means all direct flights from these countries to the UK are banned.
Anyone arriving in England between midday today and 4am on Sunday from these countries — or who has been in the countries in the 10 previous days — must complete a passenger locator form, quarantine at home and should take a PCR test.
Anyone arriving from these countries after 4am on Sunday must stay in a managed quarantine hotel for 10 days and take a Covid test on or before the second day of their stay, as well as another test on or after day eight.
And the UK Health Security Agency classified B.1.1.529 as a Variant Under Investigation, which means it has worrying mutations.
Experts will now conduct a risk assessment and may increase its ranking to Variant of Concern if it is confirmed to be more infectious, cause more severe illness or make vaccines and medicines less effective.
Where did B.1.1.529 first emerge?
The first case was uploaded to international variant database GISAID by Hong Kong on November 23. The person carrying the new variant was traveling to the country from South Africa.
The UK was the first country to identify that the virus could be a threat and alerted other nations.
Since then, 77 cases have been confirmed in South Africa, two in Hong Kong and three in Botswana.
Health chiefs in Israel today announced it had one confirmed and two suspected B.1.1.529 cases, while there are two suspected cases in Belgium.
Experts believe the strain may have originated in Botswana, but continental Africa does not sequence many positive samples, so it may never be known where the variant first emerged.
Professor Francois Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, told MailOnline the virus likely emerged in a lingering infection in an immunocompromised patient, possibly someone with undiagnosed AIDS.
In patients with weakened immune systems infections can linger for months because the body is unable to fight it off. This gives the virus time to acquire mutations that allow it to get around the body’s defenses.
Will I be protected if I have a booster?
Scientists have warned the new strain could make Covid vaccines 40 per cent less effective.
But they said emergence of the mutant variant makes it even more important to get a booster jab the minute people become eligible for one.
The vaccines trigger neutralizing antibodies, which is the best protection available against the new variant. So the more of these antibodies a person has the better, experts said.
Britain’s Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, said: ‘The booster jab was already important before we knew about this variant – but now, it could not be more important.’
When will we know more about the variant?
Data on how transmissible the new variant is and its effect on hospitalizations and deaths is still weeks away.
The UK has offered help to South Africa, where most of the cases are concentrated, to gather this information and believe they will know more about transmissibility in two to three weeks.
But it may be four to six weeks until they know more about hospitalizations and deaths.
What is the variant called?
The strain was scientifically named as B.1.1.529 on November 24, one day after it was spotted in Hong Kong.
The variants given an official name so far include Alpha, Beta, Delta and Gamma.
Experts at the World Health Organization on November 26 named the variant Omicron.