Coronavirus Briefing: Omicron is here

A surge is bringing us back to the early days of the pandemic.,

A surge is bringing us back to the early days of the pandemic.

This is the Coronavirus Briefing, an informed guide to the pandemic. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.

ImageDaily reported coronavirus cases in the United States, seven-day average.
Daily reported coronavirus cases in the United States, seven-day average.Credit…The New York Times

The all-too-familiar messages came pouring into my phone this week.

Vaccinated friends texted with Covid scares. A colleague told me on Slack that contact tracers had alerted her about possible exposures four times in 24 hours, before she tested positive. An acquaintance sent a hurried note on Instagram: “I know almost 50 people who tested positive in the past 48h,” he wrote. “I decided to keep a list of names.”

The phenomenon may be especially stark in my demographic — New York magazine’s Shawn McCreesh wrote that many media people and those around them seemed to have contracted Covid this week — but data show that coronavirus cases are surging across New York City.

“We have seen a very substantial increase in Covid cases in the last few days,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. “It is clear that the Omicron variant is here in New York City in full force.”

The test positivity rate has tripled in just three days. Average daily infections are now slightly higher than during the city’s first peak in the spring of 2020 and are fast approaching the record set last winter.

Across the country, the average number of new daily cases has jumped to more than 120,000 — a 40 percent increase from two weeks ago — and 70 percent more than in early November. It’s not yet possible to say whether those cases are Delta or Omicron, but experts widely expect a wave of infections from the newer variant.

Hospitals across the country — from Maryland to Arizona to Colorado — are already struggling to keep up. In some hard-hit states, federal medical workers have been sent to help exhausted hospital personnel. About 68,000 coronavirus patients are hospitalized nationwide, a 21 percent increase over the last two weeks, and hospitalizations are increasing in 42 states.


Daily hospitalizations in the U.S.Credit…The New York Times

The latest uptick feels as if we’re being flung back to 2020 again, when canceling plans was the norm and businesses were closing to “flatten the curve.”

In New York, some restaurants have shut their doors, not because the city forced them to but because their staff members have called out sick, and there is no one to replace them. Many Broadway shows have gone dark, often minutes before showtime, as cast members test positive. Cornell shut down its Ithaca, N.Y., campus after more than 900 community members tested positive in a week, many with the Omicron variant. And companies across the country have called off everything from holiday parties to return-to-office timetables and in-person meetings.

Vaccines, especially boosters, still seem to be largely effective against preventing severe disease. As Ed Yong writes in The Atlantic, this creates a distinct challenge, as the threat from Omicron is far greater for society than the individual.

“People who are unlikely to be hospitalized by Omicron might still feel reasonably protected, but they can spread the virus to those who are more vulnerable, quickly enough to seriously batter an already collapsing health-care system that will then struggle to care for anyone — vaccinated, boosted, or otherwise,” he wrote.

This kind of societal test, Yong argues, is one that the U.S. has repeatedly failed over the last two years.

“Individualism couldn’t beat Delta, it won’t beat Omicron, and it won’t beat the rest of the Greek alphabet to come,” he wrote. “Self-interest is self-defeating, and as long as its hosts ignore that lesson, the virus will keep teaching it.”

As we head into the third year of the pandemic, The Times asked 1,320 mental health professionals how their patients were coping.The responses were stark: Therapists find themselves on the front lines of a mental health crisis.

Social workers, psychologists and counselors from every state say they can’t keep up with an unrelenting demand for their services, and many must turn away patients — including children — who are desperate for support.

General anxiety and depression are the most common reasons patients seek support, but family and relationship issues also dominate therapy conversations. One in four providers said suicidal thoughts were among the top reasons clients were seeking therapy.

While there were moments of optimism about telemedicine and reduced stigma around therapy, the responses painted a mostly grim picture of a growing crisis, which several therapists described as a “second pandemic” of mental health problems.

“There is so much grief and loss,” said Anne Compagna-Doll, a clinical psychologist in Burbank, Calif. “One of my clients, who is usually patient, is experiencing road rage. Another client, who is a mom of two teens, is fearful and doesn’t want them to leave the house. My highly work-motivated client is considering leaving her career. There is an overwhelming sense of malaise and fatigue.”

It has been a roller coaster of a year. Coronavirus infections soared and dropped. Vaccinations picked up in earnest and then stalled. Borders opened. Delta surged. Schools reopened. And here comes Omicron.


As we reach the end of this year, we’d like to take a moment to reflect on what happened and how it went for you. What is the pandemic moment from 2021 that will stick with you for years to come?

Maybe it was learning that you’d tested positive, missing someone who died from the virus, or your first hug after getting inoculated.

Whatever it is, we’d love for you to share it with us and perhaps also with our readers.

As a challenge, we’re asking you to keep your response to a 50-word limit. (Here are some Tiny Love Stories, for inspiration on the format, and an online word counter, if you want to check your work.) If you’d like to participate, you can share your story here. We may feature it in an upcoming newsletter.

Not happy. Forced to double vax in order to participate in society and work. Now we’re told we should not travel, and have to do expensive P.C.R. tests if we do. Schools are considering shutting down sports, masks continue to be enforced and boosters pushed. Why did we even get vaccinated if we cannot live freely?

— Katie, Ontario

Let us know how you’re dealing with the pandemic. Send us a response here, and we may feature it in an upcoming newsletter.

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Amelia Nierenberg contributed to today’s newsletter.

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