Health

Beleaguered by omicron, New York operates at half speed

The Fire Department, where nearly one-third of paramedics were out sick, begged New Yorkers not to call 911 unless it was a real emergency, after a spate of calls from mildly ill people who were just looking for an ambulance ride to a hospital to get a COVID test.

And while New Yorkers across the city were lining up scores deep to get coronavirus tests, 20 CityMD locations that provide those tests were closed because of staffing shortages caused by the virus.

New York City — exhausted, beleaguered and riddled with coronavirus thanks to the omicron variant — remains officially open. But as Year 2 of the pandemic makes way for Year 3, the city is operating at half speed simply because so many people are sick.

From restaurants to libraries to courts to cruise ships to city agencies, services have been reduced, businesses temporarily closed and events cancelled as the entire city struggles to navigate through a sort of omicron haze.

“It’s kind of a nightmare,” Susannah Koteen, owner of two bars and Harlem restaurant Lido, said Wednesday. About one-fifth of her staff have been out thanks to COVID, and business is down at least 20%. “We were kind of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and it feels like we’ve taken several steps backward.”

The city logged 39,591 new coronavirus cases Wednesday, the governor’s office said, smashing the old record, set on Christmas Eve, by more than 8,000. More than 100,000 people have tested positive just since Christmas Day.

On the city’s website, the test positivity rate was literally off the chart: The chart goes up to only 20%, and the seven-day average stood at 20.97%.

Mayor Bill de Blasio told New Yorkers shortly before Christmas that omicron would provide the city with a “challenging few weeks.” But because omicron appears to cause milder disease than earlier iterations of the virus, because more than 80% of New Yorkers are fully vaccinated and because he has ordered a vaccine mandate for all private-sector employers, he said he did not see a need for a 2020-style lockdown.

And so the city is carrying on, kind of. It still plans to hold a limited Times Square New Year’s Eve ball drop, even as the chairman of the City Council’s Health Committee urged de Blasio on Wednesday to cancel the celebration — as Rome, Paris and Tokyo have done with theirs. (The midnight fireworks in Prospect Park in Brooklyn have been canceled already.)

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Mayor-elect Eric Adams took the celebration plan a step further, announcing Wednesday that he would take the oath of office in Times Square shortly after the midnight ball drop.

But a survey done by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce found that 20% of the 109 businesses that responded have closed temporarily during the holidays.

And many businesses that remain open are hemorrhaging money. “I’ve probably lost about $1 million” in the last three weeks, said Michael Dorf, founder of City Winery, a restaurant and music venue with locations in New York and other cities. “Kitchens are open, the food is being ordered, but there’s nobody coming in, so the losses are continuing because we’re fully employed.

Andrew Rigie, executive director of the New York City Hospitality Alliance, which represents thousands of restaurants and nightclubs, said that the long lines to get tested were themselves causing staffing headaches. Many workers, he said, were waiting “to get test results that took days to get back,” forcing them to miss shifts.

Even so, he said, “we’re still in a much better place compared to last winter, when everything was shut down.” He added, “Nearly two years into the pandemic, I think many people recognise we need to balance these complex risks and live our lives.”

On Broadway “The Music Man” and “Six” are newly closed, after cast members, including Hugh Jackman, star of “The Music Man,” tested positive. Four other shows just announced they are closing for good early next year, a rapid testing van is parked outside the theater where “Winnie the Pooh” is playing, and more and more roles are being played by understudies.

Signs of a partly shuttered city were everywhere Wednesday. The W subway line was suspended early Wednesday and stayed offline for the day. Clicking the status button for the A, D, E, N and R trains brought up a message: “You may wait longer” for a train, it said. “We’re running as much service as we can with the train crews we have available.”

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Transit workers, unlike many city employees, are not subject to strict vaccine mandates: Employees are required to be vaccinated or submit to weekly coronavirus testing. This week, Gov Kathy C Hochul said that the state would not move to require transit workers be vaccinated out of concerns that such a mandate would only worsen the current crew shortages and service reductions.

On the other end of the transportation spectrum, the Cunard cruise line said Wednesday that its Queen Mary 2 ship would skip a scheduled stop in New York and instead extend a stay in Barbados until Sunday as a precautionary measure to bring in more workers.

The Police Department — where some commands are operating at half staffing — has cancelled days off for any officer healthy enough to work through New Year’s weekend, said Sgt Edward Riley, a department spokesman. More than one in six firefighters are out sick, and nearly one in three Emergency Medical Services workers are on medical leave.

“That’s very high,” said Frank Dwyer, a Fire Department spokesperson. “What we’re seeing is what everyone is seeing, that there is a surge in COVID across the city.”

To fill staffing voids, the Fire Department called up several ambulance crews of medics who are due to graduate shortly from the department’s EMS academy. It has also mandated overtime shifts and reassigned some administrative workers to front-line emergency crews.

Public libraries across the city were “closing massively” because of staffing shortages, Henry Garrido, executive director of District Council 37, the city’s biggest municipal union, said Wednesday. In Queens alone, five libraries were closed Wednesday, down from 11 Monday.

Still, Dennis Walcott, chief executive of the Queens Public Library, said library regulars were coming in, finding ways to live with the pandemic.

“I think a culture has developed within — especially the regular customers — knowing that they have to have their mask, knowing that they sit a distance apart from each other,” he said. “I think that gives the confidence to the public, ‘Hey, come on in.’ ”

Even though the omicron variant is causing serious health complications for a far smaller percentage of patients than previous forms of the virus, the sheer number of cases is filling up hospitals, and the death toll is rising.

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Statewide, COVID-related hospital admissions jumped 10% in a single day, and deaths neared 100 for the first time since February. The state reported 28 deaths in New York City, the highest one-day total since May.

While COVID hospitalisations are rising in New York City, the number of patients in intensive care is less than half what it was during last winter’s surge.

But Mark Levine, outgoing chair of the City Council Health Committee and the incoming Manhattan borough president, said illness among health care workers was causing a “squeeze” on hospitals just as caseloads were rising rapidly.

The workforce, he said, is already “depleted, exhausted and in short supply,” adding that the city was “probably just a couple days away from surpassing the peak of last winter in hospitalisation.”

The governor said that 25 hospitals across the state have suspended elective surgeries. In New York City, the Mount Sinai Health System said Wednesday it was deferring elective surgeries when possible, even though “the patients that we do have in the hospital are, overall, much less sick than those we cared for” during last winter’s surge.

Given the “astounding spread” of the virus, Levine (who was himself recovering from his second bout of COVID, despite being vaccinated and boosted) said he thought the city should not have an in-person crowd in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

CityMD said in a statement Wednesday that while it continued to see record numbers of patients, “the spread of omicron and the demand for testing is stretching our teams very thin,” and that the 20 offices it has already closed in New York City may soon be joined by more.

In downtown Brooklyn, Wanda Ortiz, who has had a fever, body aches and a scratchy throat since Christmas, summoned the strength to head over to the CityMD on Atlantic Avenue on Wednesday morning to get tested. The clinic was dark.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Ortiz, 68, said as she read the note on the door. She wandered off to find another testing site, hoping she would not have to stand in line too long in the cold.

© The New York Times Company

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