COVID-19 test Credit: Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

The Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus has been labeled “milder.” It’s easily transmissible despite social distancing, contract tracing, testing, etc. It’s a new variant. The public needs to take a similar approach to fighting it. But (again) an unknown outcome.

Omicron made its mark in New York City several weeks ago when streets filled with barflies, restaurant patrons and partygoers emptied out as positive cases increased. Lines for COVID testing at public and private facilities took the place of lines at restaurants.

Citizens are taking precautions. Private businesses now have vaccine mandates and city agencies are right behind them.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority has looked to contribute in its own way by opening testing sites in some of their stations. According to the MTA, the agency is going back to its pre-pandemic service—and providing 90% of it for close to 60% of the ridership. An email from the MTA also said that it’s seeing 97% compliance with its vax-or-test mandate.

MTA Spokesperson Dave Steckel said that COVID booster shot locations are available to anyone in the city.

“The MTA’s priority is to keep New York moving and we are doing this by opening as many testing and vaccination sites as we can,” said Steckel. “These centers have a large footprint and safety is always a priority, so setting up a site on a sidewalk or in the street is just not possible. The majority of the sites are set up in areas that do not require a fare payment—in large mezzanines in subway stations or in available, empty retail locations and we encourage all New Yorkers to take advantage of this easy, new access to COVID testing, vaccinations, and booster shots.”

Demetrius Crichlow, senior vice president for Subways, MTA New York City Transit, also said that the public shouldn’t worry about train service now.

“Subway service is running on a normal schedule with some exceptions,” said Crichlow. “The winter surge of the Omicron variant is affecting businesses across New York City, and that includes the MTA. Customers can check real-time arrival information at MTA.info or MYmta to see how frequently trains are running at their stations.”

As for the entire Empire State, according to the state department of health numbers on breakthrough data, “Beginning the week of December 13, 2021, after the emergence of the Omicron variant, vaccine effectiveness against cases began to decline again. In the most recent week, vaccine effectiveness was 75%. This means fully vaccinated New Yorkers had about a 75% lower chance of becoming a COVID-19 case, compared to unvaccinated New Yorkers. The New York State Department of
Health will continue to closely monitor trends in vaccine effectiveness as the epidemic evolves.”

New York State is meant to display the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine. One could deduce that it’s a combination of the vaccine while continuing to socially distance, wash hands and follow the pre-vaccine protocols.

It’s good news for the state; everywhere else in America, however? The situation is different.

The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) projects a dire situation for the country, and the world. Due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, the institute projects that over the next three months, there will be 3 billion infections globally.

IHME’s study also states that some of the trends in transmission in the U.S. can be directed to fewer state mandates. It states that, as of Dec. 13, in their Trends and Impact Survey, 38% of participants self-reporting said that they always wore a mask when leaving their house. Mask use is over 50% in Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Hawaii, Illinois, and Vermont.

“As of December 13, 24 states have reached 70% or more of the population who have received at least one vaccine dose and seven states have reached 70% or more of the population who are fully vaccinated,” the study read. “73% of people in the US have received at least one vaccine dose, and 61% are fully vaccinated.”

The IHME projects that 2.8 million people will be infected with the Omicron variant at the end of January 2022. The institute also said that the “high severity of Omicron scenario” will rise to 414,000 daily cases by Feb. 6, 2022.

IHME ran its study through Dec. 21 with data used from up to Dec. 13.

IHME’s insights offer that on top of the predicted increase in infections in the next two to three months, some infections won’t be detected because a larger fraction of cases will be asymptomatic (90%). Fewer people won’t take the COVID test, so their infections won’t be recorded. But it’s also less likely to result in hospitalization and death.

The major fear of the Omicron variant is whether vaccinations or boosters are enough of a biological shield to the coronavirus. But certain people and entities aren’t worried about that.

Last week, Delta Air Lines Inc.’s CEO Ed Bastain wrote a letter to the CDC asking for them to shorten the agency’s recommended quarantine time from 10 to 5 days, citing the impact on his company’s workforce.

“With the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, the 10-day isolation for those who are fully vaccinated may significantly impact our workforce and operations,” read the letter, which was also signed off by Delta’s medical advisor Dr. Carlos del Rio and its senior vice president and chief health officer Dr. Henry Ting. “Similar to healthcare, police, fire, and transportation workforces, the Omicron surge may exacerbate shortages and create significant disruptions. Further, all airline personnel are required to mask at airports and on airplanes.”

According to the CDC’s new COVID guidelines, people who are not vaccinated or more than six months past their first vaccine dose or aren’t boosted can quarantine for five days instead of ten. If they can’t quarantine for that long then they work while wearing a “well-fitting” mask at all times around other people. The CDC stated that these rules, and others, will help victims of the coronavirus.

“The Omicron variant is spreading quickly and has the potential to impact all facets of our society,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky in a statement. “CDC’s updated recommendations for isolation and quarantine balance what we know about the spread of the virus and the protection provided by vaccination and booster doses. These updates ensure people can safely continue their daily lives. Prevention is our best option: get vaccinated, get boosted, wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial and high community transmission, and take a test before you gather.”

The CDC also noted that in areas that are using options to reduce quarantine times, asymptomatic people can use a negative COVID test result collected on day five—after exposure—to leave quarantine on day seven with self-monitoring. The day of exposure to the virus is considered, by the CDC, to be day zero.

While it might not have influenced the CDC’s current ordinances, the optics made it look like it did. But no matter the responsibility, National Nurses Union President Zenei Triunfo-Cortez, RN, wrote her own letter to the CDC for siding with corporate at the blue collar’s expense.

“No longer requiring fully vaccinated and boosted health care workers to quarantine after a high-risk exposure ignores basic tenets of infection control and the precautionary principle,” wrote Triunfo-Cortez. “A more effective response to the rapidly spreading Omicron variant would be for the CDC to improve existing post-exposure guidance to fully recognize that this virus is airborne, and to strike the false equivalency between face masks and respirators.”

Both Delta and the CDC’s headquarters are based in Atlanta, but Delta isn’t the only airline company to go the letter route. In a letter first obtained by David Slotnick of The Points Guy, JetBlue’s CEO Robin Hayes also wrote to the CDC asking for a decrease in quarantine/isolation time for those infected with COVID.

“Today, the vast majority of JetBlue’s Crewmembers are vaccinated and like so many others are being relied upon by the American public for providing the essential service of travel,” wrote Hayes.
According to The New York Times, this week, the CDC lowered its estimation of the prevalence of the Omicron variant in the U.S.

As the infections grow so does the desire for tests of all kinds. Home tests, which the AmNews recently reported on, are the new wave, but prices continue to increase online (one person the AmNews spoke to ordered a test on Dec. 20, but it won’t arrive until Jan. 10; many tests on the site costs $40 and above) and shortages at pharmacies have become commonplace.

During New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s last media briefing he brought out New York State Gov. Kathy Hochul and New York City Mayor-elect Eric Adams to speak. One issue they tackled was the COVID rates, particularly within the department of education (including reopening schools Jan. 3). De Blasio touted his policies and the success of each despite public scrutiny.

“…Our schools have been extra early safe—bluntly, the safest places to be in New York City, very low levels of COVID,” said de Blasio. “Why? Because it started with making sure every single adult in our schools, everyone was vaccinated. Right now, 96%-plus of Department of Education employees, vaccinated. That has been one of the big difference-makers, the gold standard of health and safety measures we put in place. Schools have been safe and schools are where kids need to be.

“The science is clear, schools need to be open,” continued de Blasio.

Hochul piggybacked on de Blasio’s take and stretched it out to the whole state.

“…As you mentioned, schools are safe as a result of our joint mandates,” said Hocul. “And I have a statewide mask mandate for children in school to make sure they’re safe. Our teachers are vaccinated. So we all have to do our part to continue to make sure that parents feel comfortable when they send their children back to school on January 3rd. So, from our standpoint, what the State of New York can do to help best is to make sure that there are sufficient testing kits available to be used by the school district.”

When contacted by the AmNews the city’s Department of Education directed us to a release which recommended that students and staff members get tested by Jan. 3 at any testing site or pick up an at-home rapid test that you find online at nyc.gov/covidtest or text “COVID TEST 855-48” to 311 to find a site closest to you. The city also plans on expanding the number of people available for surveillance testing in schools after complaints of a lack of testers in schools, leaving staffers, students, and parents in the dark about positive tests for children. The plan also vows to quickly identify and respond to positive cases so schools can stay open.

“Every student and adult in a classroom with a positive case will immediately receive an at-home rapid test kit and will need to take two tests in five days,” read part of the release. “Students who are asymptomatic do not need to quarantine and can continue attending school.”

Throughout his campaign and post-election, Adams has faced questions about continuing or cancelling some of de Blasio’s policies wholesale. With this one, however, Adams seems to be on the side of the mayor. He also agreed with Hochul that home tests should be available to anyone who needs them.

“This way we could identify those who are impacted by COVID and distribute, as the governor mentioned, millions of tests to staff and parents to test at-home,” said Adams on Tuesday. “This is a new way of thinking. Let’s get those test kits at home, so parents can start taking precautionary steps and testing their family members.”

Home tests, now, cost money and some union workers have asked around, anonymously, if they’d be reimbursed for purchasing at home tests.

The AmNews asked officials at BlueCross BlueShield this question and a spokesperson said, “Throughout the pandemic, BCBS companies have worked to ensure access to COVID-19 testing for all Americans and covered COVID-19 diagnostic testing with zero cost-sharing for members in alignment with the CARES Act. We remain steadfast in our commitment to the health of Americans as the pandemic endures. Continued access to both vaccines and testing is a key piece of that. The Blue Cross Blue Shield Association will work with the administration to ensure commonsense implementation across all stakeholders, with consumer affordability as our first priority.”

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