New York’s recent explosion of COVID-19 cases shattered dreams of a return to the carefree pre-pandemic world, awakening many New Yorkers to the prospect of living with the coronavirus indefinitely.
From another COVID-marred holiday season and chaotic remote-school reboots to overwhelmed emergency rooms, the stark reality of getting infected with coronavirus struck home for at least 1.8 million New Yorkers since Dec. 1.
While the highly contagious omicron variant continued to send scores of New Yorkers to the hospital, many fully vaccinated people faced less severe COVID-19 illnesses. The true number of cases is also likely higher because the statewide tally lacks at-home test results.
Amid the outbreaks, authorities urged people to remain vigilant against COVID-19, including by getting a booster shot and masking indoors. But they also struck a cautiously optimistic tone that New York’s nearly two-year battle with the virus had reached a turning point.
“There is an end in sight,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said last week, citing new declines in daily caseloads that could prompt an end to mask mandates and other pandemic-related measures, if the trend continued.
“I am so looking forward to just, personally, to lift all these restrictions that were put in place for the right reasons,” she added.
A pandemic reality check and new normal
New York hitting a potential omicron wave peak also fueled national debate about when COVID-19 could become like other diseases such as respiratory syncytial virus, which causes about 235,000 hospitalizations and 15,000 deaths each winter but results in limited disruption to society.
Yet the path to that “new normal” remained far from clear, as many New Yorkers still struggled to obtain COVID-19 tests, medical care and relief from the coronavirus exposures and infections hindering their work and children’s education.
Diane Serratore, CEO of People to People, Rockland County's largest food pantry, said following strict rules on infectious-disease prevention had kept her safe from the virus, despite being an essential worker interacting with the public.
But after 22 months of living a Spartan existence of working without much social life, Serratore joined the ranks of pandemic-fatigued New Yorkers who let their guard down over the holidays and caught omicron.
Her exposures came during two family gatherings on Christmas Eve and Day, with groups of seven and 12 people at the respective households. All of the attendees were fully vaccinated and some were boosted.
Within days, Serratore learned someone at each gathering had since tested COVID-19 positive, just before her symptoms struck.
Despite being fully vaccinated, Serratore said she got “pretty sick” and isolated for ten days. Then, she developed an acute respiratory infection, which she attributed to her pre-existing history of suffering pneumonia.
Recalling her reaction to the illness, she said: “This will pass and hopefully this plague will pass, too.”
While nearly recovered now, the episode also left Serratore questioning what post-pandemic life may hold.
“How do we function not just in business or in schools but as family members?” she asked, noting the idea of striking a work-life balance remains elusive in the face of ever-changing COVID risks.
“It seems like we’re just constantly rescheduling things,” she added.
For now, Serratore planned to focus on what she could control by getting a COVID-19 vaccine booster shot. While aware it offered better protection, she delayed getting the third dose after missing some work due to side effects from the first two shots.
“I just didn’t want to take the chance of getting sick from the booster when I had to make sure 4,000 people got food,” she said, referring to her work at the food pantry during the high-demand months of November and December.
After two years of fortifying against COVID-19, Maria Colaco’s pandemic reality check came when omicron infiltrated her Katonah home just before Christmas in Westchester County.
Initially, she fell ill and tried to isolate in her room, but the virus rapidly spread to her three children, ages 3 to 16. While they all suffered less severe cases, the saga included a call to a pediatrician when the toddler’s fever spiked to 104 degrees.
Colaco’s relatives from Florida also canceled plans to visit and spend the holidays together in Westchester County. Instead, those relatives overnight mailed at-home tests and high-grade masks to Colaco because they were nearly impossible to find in the tri-state area, she said.
Still suffering from a nagging cough, Colaco said recently she was most disappointed omicron robbed her two youngest children of another year of making childhood holiday memories.
“It was kind of a bummer,” she said. “We had this big Christmas week planned.”
Dr. Bonnie Litvack’s omicron odyssey included the crush of colleagues at her Mount Kisco medical offices missing work after contracting COVID-19 — or calling out of work to care for children and spouses impacted by the virus.
The office’s parent network, Northwell Health, has provided enough support workers to fill the staffing gaps so far. But the scale of illness underscored how long-standing staffing shortages plaguing New York’s entire health system faced continued challenges due to omicron, and potentially future variants.
“It’s just the sheer number of cases,” Litvack said. “Omicron has really affected everybody’s life in and out of the office.”
The variant also recently breached the homes of Litvack’s brother and sister-in-law. It infected every person in their respective households despite them being fully vaccinated and boosted, which they attributed with preventing severe symptoms.
Even in the face of all the illness, Litvack maintained a positive outlook based on recent declines in cases, as well as the medical community’s tireless pursuit of ever-improving knowledge of vaccines and medicines to combat COVID-19.
“That’s all going to come together to help us manage this and get back to a real new normal,” she said. “And people can feel safe and get back to life if the virus is with is for a while, which it appears it will be.”
Robin Maslanek, an English teacher at Nyack High School, had kept safe from COVID, even as omicron crept into the region.
“Schools are not superspreaders,” she said. “I didn’t get COVID in school. I got it outside of school where people aren’t masking and being cavalier.”
She said she got infected inside a casino during a winter-break trip to Atlantic City, New Jersey. “I was astounded,” Maslanek said. “There were no mask protocols for the staff.” Visitors were often unmasked indoors.
Maslanek tested positive for the virus on Jan. 1. That week, the school district, along with all others in Rockland County, adopted a five-day quarantine period. She was back in class Jan. 10, but Maslanek said the illness had been rough.
The experience also added to the strain of teaching through a pandemic.
“I thought that things were getting better,” the 48-year-old Suffern resident said. Now, she’s back to hybrid instruction, with some quarantined kids on Zoom during class.
“I love my job,” said Maslanek, who is in her 25th year at Nyack. “If I were not a veteran teacher with so much time and the amount of experience I have, I would be looking to get out. Not because I don’t love kids and not because I don’t love my job, but this is really hard.”
How telehealth fit into NY’s omicron wave
Meanwhile, New Yorkers’ mounting frustration and confusion surrounding the omicron wave — as well as evolving guidance that relaxed quarantine rules for workplaces and schools — also triggered a spike in telehealth visits, health leaders said.
The flood of COVID-related phone calls and video chats with medical providers mostly came from people worried about their ability to resolve the respiratory illness at home, as authorities warned short-staffed hospital beds should be reserved for only the sickest patients.
“It’s really highlighting the fact that telemedicine is really a necessity at the moment and not just a convenience,” said Ji E. Chang, a New York University assistant professor of public health policy and management.
The recent jump in demand for medical care without in-person visits evoked memories of spring 2020, when more than 60% of care delivered at community health centers in New York shifted to telehealth, according to Chang’s research.
But New Yorkers with long-standing barriers to accessing high-speed internet lacked access to some telehealth services, underscoring the systemic health care inequality laid bare during the pandemic. The broadband gaps spanned everything from rural towns to cities.
“The equity part comes in if you have a patient who can’t access video,” Chang said, noting the video visit is the gold standard of telehealth because doctors can observe patients’ health and build relationships.
“Some patients of color or older patients face a higher barrier of accessing video,” she added.
Policies and legislation seeking to boost broadband access and health insurance coverage, Chang noted, are key to closing the digital divide as telehealth remains crucial to improving New Yorkers health in the post-pandemic era.
Before omicron hit, Jonathan Bandel, chief innovations officer at White Plains Hospital, said many New Yorkers who rushed to telehealth in spring 2020 had returned to in-person medical visits, seeking a return to their pre-pandemic routines.
At Montefiore Health, the Bronx-based health system that includes White Plains Hospital and other hospitals across New York City and the Hudson Valley, the spring 2020 telehealth spike peaked around 75% of visits overall. As cases declined, demand fell before plateauing around 15% in the period leading up to omicron.
While it’s still too early to gauge the exact spike in telehealth linked to omicron, Bandel estimated it was up from 15% of visits but well below the roughly 75% peak, citing in part a growing acceptance of existing with the virus.
“People wanted and society still wants to get back to normal,” he said.
How omicron changed NY’s pandemic response
The evolving risk calculus of omicron, in many ways, was reflected in recent changes to the pandemic response.
For example, New York is ending contact tracing efforts, conceding the massive wave of less-severe COVID-19 cases rendered the investigations all but ineffective. Instead, people are being asked to self-manage their isolation period, which was recently reduced to five days from 10.
Many contact-tracing workers are being redirected to COVID-19 testing and vaccination efforts, which will remain key to limit omicron’s spread and curbing outbreaks of potential future variants.
But the timing of many recent changes to state and federal pandemic policies, as well as efforts to better distribute related supplies, continued to lag the coronavirus’ evolution, said Dr. Gregory Poland, an Infectious Diseases Society of America expert.
Further, the politically divisive climate and mixed messaging from federal officials surrounding the push to increase booster shots and revise public health policies increased the risk COVID-19 would continue to cause preventable suffering and death, added Poland, a vaccine expert at the Mayo Clinic.
“We’ve dressed rehearsal for this four previous times, and we’re still not ready,” he said.
Karen Weintraub of USA TODAY contributed to this report.
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This article originally appeared on New York State Team: COVID hit home for 1.8M New Yorkers since Dec. 1. How it changed them