Christmas Eve Flights Canceled, Times Square Celebration Scaled Back Amid Omicron

The variant has driven virus cases past Delta’s peak in the United States, leaving airlines without staff and forcing Mayor Bill de Blasio to restrict the number of people who will be allowed to watch the ball drop in Times Square.

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Mayor Bill de Blasio at a news conference last week in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. He announced on Thursday that the Times Square celebration would go on, but with far fewer spectators.Credit…Dave Sanders for The New York Times

New York City will scale back the Times Square New Year’s Eve celebration as the Omicron variant spreads, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Thursday, the same day New York state reported its highest recorded daily coronavirus case total ever.

The mayor added that officials were still monitoring the situation and could take additional precautions in the coming days, if needed.

As of now, attendees will be required to show proof of full vaccination and wear masks. Fewer people — 15,000, instead of the usual 58,000 — will be allowed in designated viewing areas, to make social distancing more possible. Visitors will not be allowed in until about 3 p.m., later than past years.

The number of cases in the city reported over the past week is the highest since the start of the pandemic, though testing was severely limited in its early days.

Nearly 39,000 new cases were reported statewide on Thursday, about 10,000 more thanon Wednesday, with nearly 23,000 of them in New York City. More than 60 percent of cases reported by New York State to the genetic tracking database GISAID in the last two weeks were of the Omicron variant, according to the governor’s office.

The city’s seven-day average test positivity rate was 11 percent as of Tuesday, and there were hourslong waits for tests at many sites around the city.

Also, Thursday the band Phish, which regularly plays New Year’s Eve concerts at Madison Square Garden, postponed its upcoming run of shows, including a three-set performance originally planned for New Year’s Eve.

A short while before making the Times Square announcement, at an unrelated event in Park Slope, Mr. de Blasio insisted that the rise in virus cases would subside soon and that shutdowns were not necessary. He said the city’s strategy of incentivizing vaccines and boosters and implementing strict vaccine mandates would suffice.

“It’s going to be a tough few weeks, but it will only be a few weeks,” he said, adding, “We are not falling back. We’re going to fight our way through this.”

Health experts were divided about the New Year’s Eve decision. Denis Nash, a professor of epidemiology at the CUNY School of Public Health, said that he did not think it was a good idea to hold the event.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic with a big surge of a new variant whose risk we’re still really understanding, and I don’t think we want to let it amplify,” he said.

He added that he was concerned that people visiting New York from other states and countries could pick up the variant and bring it home with them.

“Since New York is a global city and connected to everywhere, we have to be thinking about those places too,” Dr. Nash said.

But Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said that he was “really pleased” that the mayor chose not to cancel, noting the vaccine mandate and adding that the virus generally does not transmit efficiently outdoors.

“The whole country watches this, so I think psychologically it’s very important for the country to have a sense that we can do these things again and that we can do them safely,” Dr. Jha said.

The city said Thursday that spectators over 5 years old must have received both doses, if applicable, of an F.D.A. or World Health Organization-approved vaccine at least 14 days before Dec. 31.

The ball drop will take place on Mr. de Blasio’s last day in office, marking the end of his eight-year tenure. Mayor-elect Eric Adams said in a statement on Thursday that Mr. de Blasio “made the right move to take precautionary measures as we learn to live with Covid and fight the Omicron variant.”

Tom Harris, president of the Times Square Alliance, said the 15,000 number referred specifically to people who would be allowed into viewing pens. The pens will be reduced in number and will only be filled to about 25 percent capacity, he said.

A greater number of people generally watch the ball drop from the surrounding area, including from hotels, restaurants and office buildings.

“We’re really excited about welcoming revelers back,” he said. “Safety is our priority and we feel an outdoor event with fully vaccinated, masked people in a less dense environment is about as safe as we could get.”

Grace Ashford contributed reporting.

A United Airlines gate agent earlier this week in Denver. United joined many other airlines in canceling flights over Christmas.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Thousands of would-be travelers received the same troubling message on Thursday: a last-minute cancellation of their Christmas Eve flight because of the recent spike of Omicron cases.

United Airlines canceled at least 131 flights scheduled to leave dozens of airports on Friday — along with another 28 that were supposed to take off on Saturday, according to Flight Aware. Other airlines, including Delta, JetBlue and Allegiant, did the same, adding up to 1,404 cancellations as of Thursday evening, the website said.

It’s the latest blow to the holiday season caused by the new and highly transmissible Omicron variant, which now accounts for more than 70 percent of new coronavirus cases. Nearly 170,000 people are testing positive everyday, a 38 percent increase over the last two weeks, according to The New York Times’s coronavirus tracker.

In its statement, United said that Omicron’s “direct impact on our flight crews and the people who run our operation” led to the cancellations.

Crew members had been calling in sick, according to spokesman Joshua Freed, who said that United alerted customers as soon as it could. And while Mr. Freed doesn’t expect the airline will cancel more flights, it remained a possibility.

“We are really managing this day by day,” he said. “There may be some more flight cancellations for Saturday. It’s possible.”

Dozens of customers took to social media to air their grievances about the last-minute cancellations, including John Ferris who tweeted: “You’ve got be kidding me. And there are apparently no available flights for days. Ba humbug.”

In its statement, the airline said it is working to rebook as many people as possible in time for the holidays.

The Coalition for the Homeless said it was seeing evidence that the coronavirus was “spreading quickly” in congregate shelters and has called on Mayor Bill de Blasio to move people to hotels.Credit…John Minchillo/Associated Press

Covid-19 is surging in New York City’s homeless shelters, prompting some to call on the city’s mayor to move people to hotels to keep the fast-spreading Omicron variant from overwhelming crowded shelters.

On Thursday, the city reported that there had been 187 new cases in the past week among the 46,000 residents of the main shelter system, more than double the 82 the week before and more than quintuple the 36 cases reported for the last week of November.

The city did not say how many of those 187 cases were in the barrackslike “congregate” shelters that house 12,000 people who often sleep upward of 20 to a room.

But the operator of one such shelter said on Thursday that in recent days, 14 out of 200 residents, or 7 percent, had tested positive and that most residents had not been tested at all in the last two weeks. At least four workers at that shelter, out of about 40, had also tested positive, said the operator, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the city forbids shelters to talk to reporters without clearance.

If 7 percent of the residents of congregate shelters got the coronavirus, that would be over 800 people, which would exceed the shelter system’s current supply of isolation and quarantine rooms. So far, though, the 187 new cases the city reported represent less than 1 percent of the overall shelter population.

The Coalition for the Homeless, an advocacy group, urged Mayor Bill de Blasio to move people from congregate shelters back to the hotels where the city placed them during the early waves of the pandemic to stem the spread of the virus.

The city’s comptroller-elect, Brad Lander, also said that by keeping thousands of people in shelters “where they cannot adequately isolate,” the city was “failing” its legal and moral obligation to “provide people who are struggling with a safe place to stay warm and sleep.”

But Mr. de Blasio said the city had no plans to move people to hotels en masse. “What we’re seeing so far in Omicron: intense surge but less impact, and we also believe it’ll be for a brief period of time,” he said on Wednesday. “So that does not suggest doing things the way we did last year.”

He added, “We also have a hell of a lot more people vaccinated than we did when we went through the challenges last year.”

At least 11,000 shelter residents have been vaccinated directly through the shelter system, in addition to an unknown but large number vaccinated elsewhere, the Department of Homeless Services said.

As of Tuesday, the shelter system had about 70 vacant beds in isolation units, where people are sent after testing positive or showing Covid-like symptoms, and about 130 beds in quarantine rooms, said Isaac McGinn, a Homeless Services spokesman. Typically, if someone in a congregate shelter tests positive, the people sleeping nearest to them are sent to quarantine. Mr. McGinn said the department was “on standby to bring on more beds pending additional needs.”

On Wednesday, Housing Works, the nonprofit that runs most of the shelter system’s isolation and quarantine units, declined to provide medical services at a new isolation hotel the city is using because the city was insisting on putting two people in a single isolation room, said Charles King, Housing Works’ executive director.

At a women’s shelter in College Point, Queens, one resident, Alison Gibney, said that three women that she knew of had tested positive in recent days.

“It’s a nightmare situation,” Ms. Gibney said. “There are 15 women to a room, and I must sleep with a mask, and that is the only time I’m not double masked.”

Multiple studies have suggested that the Omicron variant is skilled at evading the antibodies produced after vaccination or after infection with the coronavirus.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

New data from Britain suggests that booster protection against symptomatic Covid caused by the Omicron variant wanes within 10 weeks.

There have not yet been enough severe cases of Omicron to calculate how well boosters protect against severe disease, but experts believe the shots will continue to provide significant protection against hospitalization and death.

“It will be a few weeks before effectiveness against severe disease with Omicron can be estimated,” the new report, from Britain’s Health Security Agency, noted. “However, based on experience with previous variants, this is likely to be substantially higher than the estimates against symptomatic disease.”

In the weeks since Omicron was discovered, multiple studies have suggested that the variant is skilled at evading the antibodies that are produced after vaccination or after infection with the coronavirus.

The new report from Britain, which included data on people who had received the AstraZeneca, Pfizer or Moderna shots, confirmed that the vaccines — both the initial two-shot series and booster doses — were less effective and waned faster against Omicron than against Delta.

Among people who received two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, a booster with one of the mRNA vaccines, made by Pfizer and Moderna, was 60 percent effective at preventing symptomatic disease two to four weeks after the shot. After 10 weeks, however, the Pfizer booster was just 35 percent effective.The Moderna booster was 45 percent effective at up to nine weeks. (The AstraZeneca vaccine is not authorized in the United States, but the Johnson & Johnson shot uses a similar technology.)

For people who were given three Pfizer doses, vaccine effectiveness dropped from 70 percent one week after the booster to 45 percent after 10 weeks. Pfizer recipients who received a Moderna booster, on the other hand, seemed to fare better; their vaccine regimen remained up to 75 percent effective at up to nine weeks.

The report, which was based on an analysis of about 148,000 Delta cases and 68,000 Omicron cases, also included recent data suggesting that Omicron infections are less likely to lead to hospitalizations than Delta infections. The findings should be interpreted cautiously, the agency noted, because there have still not been many Omicron cases, relatively speaking, and the people who have contracted the variant may not be representative of the broader population.

The Biden administration has been encouraging all eligible Americans to receive booster shots as Omicron spreads.

In a recent interview on WCBS-AM, a New York radio station, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease doctor, said that officials were monitoring the effectiveness of mRNA boosters against Omicron.

“I do think it’s premature, at least on the part of the United States, to be talking about a fourth dose,” he said. Israel is weighing whether to give a fourth shot to its citizens.

Some scientists have warned against a fourth shot, noting that there is not yet evidence that it is necessary and that some immune cells might eventually stop responding to the shots if too many doses are given.

Covid-19 vaccines helped save lives and lower hospitalization rates; the White House is considering ways to be better capable to research and develop vaccines for the next potential outbreak.Credit…Isadora Kosofsky for The New York Times

WASHINGTON — As the Biden administration tries to stanch yet another wave of the coronavirus pandemic, senior White House officials have also been considering a proposal to ensure the nation is better prepared for the next infectious disease outbreak.

Key to the plan is the creation of a taxpayer-funded “vaccine hub” where experienced drug makers would partner with the government, reliably churning out millions of doses under federal oversight.

The proposal is partly a response to a searing failure by a once obscure Maryland biotech firm, Emergent BioSolutions. While Pfizer and Moderna had spectacular success producing vaccines, the government entrusted the manufacturing of two of the other leading candidates to Emergent, which was forced to toss tens of millions of doses of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine and to quit producing the AstraZeneca vaccine because of serious quality problems that ultimately led the Biden administration to cancel its contract.

The government’s partnership with Emergent, which cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars over the past decade, was supposed to be a pillar of the nation’s pandemic preparedness. Instead, it proved to be the culmination of 30 years of frustrations.

Three times over the past three decades, presidential administrations explored plans for a vaccine overhaul like the one President Biden is now considering, only to be thwarted by pharmaceutical lobbying, political jockeying and cost concerns, a New York Times investigation found.

In each case, the nation was left ill prepared for the next crisis — while creating a vacuum that Emergent eagerly filled.

“The reason why Emergent got so many contracts is mostly because they were the only ones willing to do the work,” said Dr. Kenneth Bernard, a top biodefense adviser to Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

To reconstruct the forgotten history that led to this year’s vaccine debacle, The Times reviewed thousands of pages of records — among them files from presidential and military archives, previously undisclosed government reports, industry correspondence and business plans.

Reporters also interviewed more than 30 people who have helped shape U.S. biodefense policy, including officials from five presidential administrations, corporate executives and industry consultants.

Time and again, The Times found, analyses commissioned by the federal government arrived at a similar conclusion: Ensuring access to specialized vaccines is a public good that cannot be left entirely to the market; yet it is unrealistic for the government to take on the task alone.

Ali Kate Cherkis for The New York Times

In January, Ali Kate Cherkis set out to document the scenes of the subway as New York City came out of one of the worst moments of the pandemic. As spring trickled by and vaccinations increased, there were fewer masks and latex gloves. Summer brought a brief respite: Tourists were returning to find dollar slices and take High Line selfies, and Showtime was back.

But the city’s recovery has come in fits and starts. First, Delta arrived, and now Omicron. Subway ridership is still just slightly more than half of what it was prepandemic. We don’t know if it will ever return to the way it was.

Yet still, the city underground mirrors the city above, ridership revealing a widening disparity between those who have been fortunate enough to adapt and move forward, and those who have been left behind.

The Omicron variant, which is now dominant in the United States and spreading faster than any variant yet, has already pushed daily coronavirus case counts higher than the peak of the recent Delta wave. By most estimates, the country is in for a significant winter surge.

Although there are early positive signs out of South Africa and Britain that Omicron infections more often result in mild illness than previous variants, officials are warning that the new variant could swiftly overtax the health care system and bring significant disease to many communities.

The highly transmissible variant is causing near-vertical case growth in multiple U.S. cities, with figures doubling about every two to three days. Officials expect it to break records. The all-time high for average daily cases was 251,232, set in January. By some estimates, the United States could reach one million cases a day, even before the end of the year.

While Omicron’s speed now speaks for itself, scientists are still racing to understand its threat. Preliminary studies out of Scotland and England suggest that infections from the variant could be milder, but scientists caution that Omicron infections must be observed in the U.S. population before drawing conclusions.

Even if these early results hold and Omicron does cause mostly mild illness, the sheer magnitude of cases it causes could still escalate hospitalizations at a time when many medical centers are already full.

“When we have millions and millions and millions of people, all sick, all together at one time, it doesn’t take a large percentage of those people to topple over the hospitals,” said Dr. Hallie Prescott, associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan.

And experts say not enough people are boosted, or vaccinated at all. The variant is thought to evade immunity from both vaccination and prior infection, but early research suggests that a booster provides the best protection against infection. And vaccination, even without the booster, is expected to maintain strong protection against hospitalization and death.

Morgan Van Ancken gets tested in Brooklyn on Wednesday.Credit…Janice Chung for The New York Times

Testing is essential to stopping the spread of Omicron. But nearly two years into the pandemic, many people are still confused about the best way to get tested for Covid-19, or frustrated that they can’t find a test.

We asked public health experts for answers to some common questions about coronavirus testing during the Omicron surge.

When is the best time to take a rapid home test before seeing family for the holidays?

Home tests can tell you whether you are infected with coronavirus right now. So you should test as close as possible to the time of the gathering, preferably about an hour or two before everyone gets together, advises Dr. Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.

Dr. Michael Mina, a former Harvard epidemiologist who is now the chief science officer for eMed, a company that distributes at-home tests, advises an even tighter window. He suggests you take the test in your car just 15 minutes before the event, if that’s practical.

A negative test does not lower your risk to zero. But taking a test does significantly reduce the risk of transmission. “A test will not protect you from getting infected,” said Dr. Mina. “A test will protect you from infecting other people.”

If you’re flying, or taking a train, you should test the day you travel to make sure you’re not infecting your fellow passengers. Once you arrive, you should test in two or three days.

What if I can’t find home tests before the holidays?

The most important precaution is that everyone at a gathering who is eligible be fully vaccinated and have a booster shot. But since even vaccinated people can spread Omicron, rapid testing a few hours before an event can prevent an infected person from unknowingly spreading the virus.

If you can’t find rapid home tests, try to get a lab test as close as possible to the event, timing it so you get the results back before you see everyone. “Any test is better than no test,” said Mara Aspinall, an expert in biomedical diagnostics at Arizona State University who is also on the board of OraSure, which makes rapid Covid tests.

Limit other activities and try to isolate as you wait for the lab results so you don’t get infected in the interim.

If everyone at the party can’t get tested, then you’ll need to assess the risk. If a vulnerable person — someone very old or who has significant health risks — will be at the party, you may decide to scale it back or cancel.

When is the best time to test if I was exposed to an infected person?

Many public health experts say people with potential exposures to the Omicron variant should test sooner than advised for previous variants.

A recent outbreak of Omicron infections in Norway after a holiday office party in November gives us clues about the best time to test based on how quickly an Omicron exposure can “convert” to an infection, said Dr. Wachter. The party was held in a restaurant on a Friday, and everyone was vaccinated. Of 80 confirmed and suspected cases, nearly 75 percent were detected on the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday after the party. That suggests that the best times to test are on days 2, 3 and 4 after exposure.

States, businesses and religious groups have challenged a Biden administration rule requiring larger businesses to mandate vaccines or weekly testing for employees.Credit…Gabby Jones for The New York Times

The Supreme Court said on Wednesday evening that it would hold a special hearing next month to assess the legality of two initiatives at the heart of the Biden administration’s efforts to address the coronavirus in the workplace.

The court said it would move with exceptional speed on the two measures, a vaccine-or-testing mandate aimed at large employers and a vaccination requirement for certain health care workers, setting the cases for argument on Friday, Jan. 7. The justices had not been scheduled to return to the bench until the following Monday.

Both sets of cases had been on what critics call the court’s shadow docket, in which the court decides emergency applications, sometimes on matters of great consequence, without full briefing and argument. The court’s decision to hear arguments on the applications may have been a response to mounting criticism of that practice, Adam Liptak reports for The New York Times.

The more sweeping of the two measures, directed at businesses with 100 or more employees, would affect more than 84 million workers and is central to the administration’s efforts to address the pandemic. The administration estimated that the measure would cause 22 million people to get vaccinated and prevent 250,000 hospitalizations.

The second measure requires health care workers at hospitals that receive federal money to be vaccinated against the virus. It “will save hundreds or even thousands of lives each month,” the administration wrote in an emergency application.

The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld state vaccine mandates in a variety of settings against constitutional challenges. But the new cases are different, because they primarily present the question of whether Congress has authorized the executive branch to institute the requirements.

The answer will mostly turn on the language of the relevant statutes, but there is reason to think that the court’s six-justice conservative majority will be skeptical of broad assertions of executive power.

The last time the Supreme Court considered a Biden administration program addressing the pandemic — a moratorium on evictions — the justices shut it down.

“Our system does not permit agencies to act unlawfully even in pursuit of desirable ends,” the court said in August in an unsigned opinion, over the dissents of the three liberal justices.

The vaccination-or-testing requirement for large employers was issued in November by the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA.

Employers are allowed to give their workers the option to be tested weekly instead of getting the vaccine, though they are not required to pay for the testing. The rule makes an exception for employees who do not come into close contact with other people at their jobs, like those who work at home or exclusively outdoors.

Under a 1970 law, OSHA has the authority to issue emergency rules for workplace safety, provided it can show that workers are exposed to a grave danger and that the rule is necessary.

States, businesses and religious groups challenged the measure in appeals courts around the nation, and a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, in New Orleans, had ruled in favor of some of the challengers, blocking the measure.

Last week, after the challenges were consolidated before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati, a divided three-judge panel reinstated the measure.

Almost immediately, more than a dozen challengers asked the Supreme Court to block the measure. READ THE FULL ARTICLE ->

Jesse Watters urged his viewers to “ambush” Dr. Anthony S. Fauci with adversarial questions about the pandemic. Credit…Jeenah Moon for The New York Times

The Fox News host Jesse Watters used notably violent language this week in urging a gathering of conservatives to publicly confront Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s foremost infectious-disease specialist, who has become a frequent source of criticism on the political right.

Referring to tabloid-style surprise interviews, Mr. Watters said in a speech that activists should “ambush” Dr. Fauci with adversarial questions that he deemed “the kill shot.” Describing the imagined effect of such a filmed confrontation, Mr. Watters added: “Boom! He is dead! He is dead! He’s done!”

Dr. Fauci called the comments “horrible” in an interview with CNN and said Mr. Watters “should be fired on the spot.”

Fox News has not disciplined Mr. Watters for the remarks. The network said in a statement that the comments were “twisted completely out of context” and that “it’s more than clear that Jesse Watters was using a metaphor for asking hard-hitting questions to Dr. Fauci.”

The host’s amped-up language was in keeping with the tone of prominent conservative figures, who for months have routinely and casually referred to Dr. Fauci in bracingly derogatory terms.

Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, for instance, described Dr. Fauci as “the most dangerous bureaucrat in the history of the country” during a Fox News interview last month.

Mr. Watters has gone about his job as usual since the uproar over his remarks, which he made on Monday.

Sheryl Gay Stolberg contributed reporting.

New C.D.C. recommendations suggest healthcare workers who are asymptomatic can return to work sooner after having COVID.Credit…Brandon Thibodeaux for The New York Times

With rising concern over hospital staffing shortages as Omicron cases rapidly spread, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday shortened isolation periods for health care workers who contract Covid-19.

The agency recommended that health care workers who are asymptomatic return to work after seven days and a negative test, adding that “isolation time can be cut further if there are staffing shortages.”

The agency also said that those workers who had received all recommended vaccine doses, including boosters, do not need to quarantine at home following high-risk exposures.

The new guidelines apply to all health care facilities that are directly involved in patient care. That would include hospitals, nursing homes, dental offices and other medical sites.

While infections with Omicron more often lead to milder illnesses, the variant is highly transmissible and hospitals have been bracing for an influx of vulnerable Americans.

Hospital administrators have stressed that the changes would not put patients at risk.

Given that health care workers are tested frequently, are largely vaccinated, and must be masked, “the chances of causing a significant amount of infections seem very low” if isolation periods are shortened, said Dr. Bob Wachter, chairman of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

“The consequences of keeping them out of the work force are massive when you think about the impact on health,” he added.

From left, Tristan Mack Wilds, Dyll?n Burnside, Forrest McClendon and Da’Vinchi in “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” which had been scheduled to run until March 13 at the Golden Theater.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Two more Broadway shows announced Thursday night that they had closed as the spike in coronavirus cases fueled by the Omicron variant takes a growing toll on the theater business.

“Thoughts of a Colored Man,” a new play about one day in the life of a group of Black men in Brooklyn, said it had closed after two days in which it was so short of performers that it had kept going only because the playwright, Keenan Scott II, stepped in to perform. The play, which began previews Oct. 1 and opened Oct. 13, had been scheduled to run until March 13.

“While this is not the outcome we had hoped for, being part of this historic season on Broadway has been the greatest privilege of our lives,” the play’s producers, led by Brian Moreland, said in a statement.

A return engagement of “Waitress,” which began performances Sept. 2 and was scheduled to run until Jan. 9, also closed after missing several performances because of coronavirus cases in the cast or crew. The show said on Thursday that it had detected new cases in its company.

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