Omicron Attacks

The latest COVID variant brings new cases home for the holidays - and a backlash to the surge in testing

| 23 Dec 2021 | 06:23

The health commissioner, who presumably knows how to stay safe, got infected, although she didn’t say exactly how.

The lawyer got it eating pizza with a colleague.

Several people got it at a fundraiser, possibly from guests who had recently flown in from London.

Omicron, the newest version of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, is as infectious as some of the most infectious diseases we know, like smallpox or measles, and far more transmissible than the Delta variant.

“Omicron has a much higher attack rate in households (nearly 100%) than Delta,” said professor Denis Nash of the CUNY School of Public Health.

The attack rate is a measure by epidemiologists of how many people get infected when someone brings the virus into a specific setting, like a household, hospital or even a Christmas party.

A household attack rate of nearly 100 % means that if someone brings Omicron home for the holidays, most everyone else will get it.

“With Delta there was a 50-60% household attack rate,” Nash reported.

Households are probably the most common venue for transmission. But, really, any enclosed space will do. The lawyer was apparently infected after spending twenty minutes with a colleague in a conference room eating pizza.

“No One Wore Masks”

Several prominent New Yorkers reported testing positive after attending a fete to raise money for a journalism program at the alma mater of the late Harry Evans, the revered former editor of the Times of London.

The event illustrated the general challenge of how what had seemed adequate to fend off the Delta variant just weeks ago was no longer enough. The guests were asked to be vaccinated and tested before attending.

On the other hand, one invitee reported that “no one wore masks,” which in Delta days was more or less socially, and even medically, acceptable for a vaccinated crowd.

Now, not so much.

Mary Bassett, Governor Kathy Hochul’s new health commissioner, tested positive just before she was due to appear at a news conference with the governor to discuss the spread of Omicron.

“Of course she is vaccinated and boosted, so this would be a breakthrough case,” said Hochul. “But she is feeling fine. We’re thinking about her and her family and all the New Yorkers who are having their family plans disrupted because of this virus.”

Bassett’s infection was identified in the daily screening of the governor’s staff, an example of how testing has ramped up to levels never before seen in this pandemic.

Ubiquitous Testing

Most of the attention focused on how the testing infrastructure could not keep up with the demand. Mark Levine, who becomes Manhattan Borough President on New Year’s Day, said the Javits Convention Center, which has already been a field hospital and vaccination center in this pandemic, should have a new incarnation as a mass testing center.

But there were also the first signs of backlash against testing so ubiquitous that it was identifying large numbers of symptomless or very mild infections and triggering personal isolation and endless cancelations.

The National Football League, which found itself postponing games in the face of waves of positive tests, reached agreement with the player’s association to end routine testing of vaccinated players who showed no symptoms, thus keeping more of them on the field.

“Medical information strongly indicates that this variant is significantly more contagious but possibly less severe than prior variants, particularly for people who are fully vaccinated and have received a booster shot,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a memo sent to the league’s teams. “Our experience with the omicron variant is fully consistent with this expectation – while more players and staff are testing positive, roughly two-thirds of those individuals are asymptomatic, most of the remaining individuals have only mild symptoms, and the virus appears to clear positive individuals more rapidly than was true with the delta or earlier variants. In many respects, Omicron appears to be a very different illness from the one that we first confronted in the spring of 2020.”

A strong caution was offered by Mark Siddall, an infectious disease expert, who noted that the skyrocketing case load in New York is a combination of Delta and Omicron variants.

He expressed concern that if New Yorkers think the current wave is entirely Omicron and “then they learn Omicron is NOT as dangerous as Delta (which it’s not), they’ll let their guard down.”

Inauguration Postponed

The question of how to react to this new surge cropped up everywhere. Mayor Elect Eric Adams postponed the public inauguration he had planned at the Kings Theater in Flatbush, while Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that New Year’s Eve festivities in Times Square, canceled last year, would be allowed to resume, as he had promised, but with limits.

Revelers must be vaccinated and masked and the crowd will be limited to 15,000, a quarter of the normal capacity, to allow for social distancing.

Times Square business leaders had pressed the Mayor to let the show go on.

“A festive, safe, vaccinated, and masked, outdoor celebration like New Year’s Eve in Times Square is exactly what we all need, now more than ever, to bid farewell and good riddance to 2021,” said two of the advocates for the New Year’s Eve celebrations, Cristyne L. Nicholas, chair of the Broadway Association and Fred Rosenberg, President of the Times Square Advertising Coalition.

“There is a lot to celebrate and these additional safety measures will keep the fully vaccinated crowd safe and healthy as we ring in the New Year,” de Blasio agreed.

The New York Post joined the health and safety discussion, if that’s the word for it, blaring, “DON”T PANIC” from its front page and urging New Yorkers to “stop buying into the Omicron hysteria.”

The key argument for their point of view is that while cases have skyrocketed beyond levels seen at previous peaks in the pandemic, hospitalizations and deaths remain far below previous levels. “We have turned the equivalent of the common cold into a potent weapon against the resumption of civil society,” concluded a two-page spread inside by Heather MacDonald, a respected conservative analyst.

Equating COVID-19 and the common cold may not be convincing to some who have suffered through recent infections even of Omicron. But MacDonald’s larger notion that our reactions are not matching the threat found resonance in other very different corners.

Bruce Y. Lee, Executive Director of the Public Health Informatics, Computational, and Operations Research Center at City University, said that a significant challenge was the way responses and messaging from public officials kept swinging wildly when public health would be better served by a steady application of proven measures like masking, distancing and vaccination.

“It’s been this over-focus on one thing at a time,” said Lee. “We are just seeing this back and forth, back and forth through out the pandemic. It’s very taxing to go back and forth. It’s psychologically exhausting.”

This story has been updated to reflect the mayor’s revised plans for New Year’s Even in Times Square.

“Omicron has a much higher attack rate in households (nearly 100%) than Delta.” Professor Denis Nash, CUNY School of Public Health