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New York’s Omicron spike could be an ominous foreshadow for the rest of the U.S.

December 15, 2021, 8:00 PM UTC

Omicron rates in New York and New Jersey have spiked over the past few weeks, and are currently four times as high as the rate in the U.S. as a whole.   

“We are now detecting [Omicron] in our genomic surveillance here at the rate of about 3% across the nation and about 13% here in New Jersey and New York,” Rochelle Walensky, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told NBC on Tuesday.  

The majority of new COVID cases in New York and New Jersey are still the Delta variant, NBC reports. But Omicron’s gains in those East Coast states could be a preview of what to expect in other parts of the country.

Omicron appears to be a less severe form of COVID, according to data from South Africa that revealed 29% fewer hospitalizations from the variant compared with Delta. But it also appears to be more transmissible, according to Walensky.  

“If you have more and more people who have disease, even if you have fewer people that get sick from it, you still have a lot of people who are getting sick,” Walensky said. She added that preventative measures like vaccination and booster shots are key.

Like many other places around the country, hospitals in New York State and New Jersey have been struggling with capacity for weeks, amid staff shortages and increasing COVID cases, even without the Omicron variant. In early December, 56 hospitals in New York were facing limited bed capacity, Spectrum News reported. New Jersey COVID hospitalizations have more than doubled in the past month, NorthJersey.com reported last week. 

Although Omicron is not the primary variant detected, it has the potential to increase the load for overcrowded hospitals, especially given its rate of spread. And the rest of the country could see a serious surge of Omicron infections come January, the CDC cautioned at a briefing on Tuesday, describing it as a “tidal wave.”

Although over 80% of New York adults have been fully vaccinated, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul asked all businesses and venues to initiate a mask mandate on Dec. 10.  

“Community spread requires a community-minded solution, as the Omicron variant emerges and the overwhelmingly dominant Delta variant continues to circulate. We have the tools we need to protect against the virus—and now we must ensure we use them,” New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett said in a statement when the mask mandate was announced.  

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