New York Daily News: By Tim Balk – Governor Hochul gave a grave appraisal of the omicron coronavirus onslaught menacing New York on Monday, as the statewide hospitalization tally topped its 2021 peak and schools battled a bumpy post-Christmas reopening.

“We’re not in a good place,” Hochul said bluntly in a news conference in Rochester, describing a hospital workforce that has been stretched to its limit and upstate intensive care wards that are running out of space. “This is not that wave we saw last year. It kind of kept going up and up. This is straight up.”

She signaled that efforts to keep schools running remained her top priority, and expressed hopes for a brief if brutal period, noting that cases spiked and then fell suddenly in South Africa’s initial run-in with the omicron strain.

Hochul said case rates will likely continue to rise after New Year’s Eve gatherings across the state. In Monroe County, where Hochul spoke, fewer than 2 percent of ICU beds were available at the start of the year, she said.

The state’s COVID hospitalization count hit 9,563 on Monday, spiking by more than 70 percent in a single week. At its peak last year, which came in mid-January, the tally touched 9,273.

The count on Monday was about half as high as its height in April 2020, the gloomiest period of the pandemic, when New York City was the epicenter of the global crisis.

“We have many more defenses this time,” Hochul said in the news conference, which was held at a state-run vaccination site. “The vaccines are so plentiful.”

People line up for Covid-19 testing at Lincoln Medical Center in the Bronx, New York on January 3, 2022.
People line up for COVID-19 testing at Lincoln Medical Center in the Bronx, New York on January 3, 2022 – TIMOTHY A CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

Shots grant significant protection against the breakthrough-prone omicron strain and the hard-hitting delta variant, and the vast majority of hospitalized New Yorkers have not been fully immunized, according to government data.

Hochul also said the state’s testing capacity had grown significantly, a crucial cog in efforts to keep schools open. On Friday, she outlined a raft of measures, billed as “Winter Surge Plan 2.0,” to battle the latest pandemic front.

Students with their parents arrive at Concourse Village Elementary School amid the recent spike in Covid-19 cases in the Bronx, New York on January 3, 2022.
Students with their parents arrive at Concourse Village Elementary School amid the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in the Bronx, New York on January 3, 2022 – TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

The blueprint included an extension of the state’s mask mandate into February, the deployment of 50 extra ambulance teams from the federal government to New York City and a testing blitz targeting schools.

“We saw the storm brewing, and we ordered a lot of test kits,” Hochul said, noting that more than 5 million diagnostics had landed in schools. “Our highest priority with those test kits is school districts.”

Most classrooms across the state reopened on Monday despite teacher shortages. But not every school district statewide managed to pull off the feat: the Syracuse school system, which serves more than 20,000 students, canceled classes, citing a shortage of staff.

The Syracuse School District said in a statement that it faced a “lack of substitutes” to cover for sick teachers.

In some spots, New York City’s reopening efforts buckled, too. An elementary school in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, stayed closed as COVID rippled through staff.

Students with their parents arrive at Concourse Village Elementary School amid the recent spike in Covid-19 cases in the Bronx, New York on January 3, 2022.
Students with their parents arrive at Concourse Village Elementary School amid the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in the Bronx, New York on January 3, 2022 – TIMOTHY A CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

Hochul, who has painted remote learning efforts as a “failed experiment,” has moved in lockstep with Mayor Adams to maintain in-person class. Both leaders noted on Monday morning that school settings offer greater safety from spread than other spaces.

“My view is that every child should be back in school unless they’re testing positive,” Hochul said.

At an elementary school in the Bronx, Adams said: “We want to be extremely clear. The safest place for our children is in a school building, and we are going to keep our schools open.”

New York City Mayor Eric Adams greets students and parents at Concourse Village Elementary School amid the recent spike in Covid-19 cases in the Bronx, New York on January 3, 2022.
New York City Mayor Eric Adams greets students and parents at Concourse Village Elementary School amid the recent spike in Covid-19 cases in the Bronx, New York on January 3, 2022 – TIMOTHY A CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

Transmission rates in schools have been low during the pandemic, according to research. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that staff-to-staff transmission has appeared to be higher than student-to-student spread, at least prior to the vaccination rollout.

The omicron variant has radically changed the outlook of the pandemic, dodging vaccine-based immunity as it drives case rates to unprecedented levels. More than one-in-five test results in New York have come back positive in recent days, according to state data.

The statewide daily case count sank on Monday to about 52,000. But Hochul cautioned that figure should be treated as an outlier produced by low testing rates over New Year’s Eve weekend.

Governor Kathy Hochul holds a Covid-19 press briefing in Rochester, New York, on Jan. 3, 2022.
Governor Kathy Hochul holds a COVID-19 press briefing in Rochester, New York, on Jan 3, 2022 – Darren McGee/Office of Governor Kathy Hochul

In the last week, New York City had the highest case rate of any region in the state, followed by Long Island, according to government figures. The Bronx’s seven-day positivity rate has eclipsed 27%, the highest clip in the five boroughs.

After the daily case tally climbed to a record 85,476 on Saturday, it ebbed the next day even as the positivity rate ticked higher Sunday to about 23%. The positivity rate was about 5% at the start of December, before health authorities first spotted the heavily mutated omicron strain in New York.

The variant typically causes mild illness compared to previous variants, according to experts. But its blazing transmission has threatened to flood hospitals beyond their breaking points, and has left essential services short on workers, freezing subway lines and shuttering testing centers.

In response to the variant, officials have aggressively pushed adults to get booster shots and to deliver initial jabs to young children, who remain largely unvaccinated.

Covid hospitalization rates in New York City children increased by about 400 percent across two weeks last month, and more than two-thirds of children statewide between 5 and 11 have not received a single dose, according to government data.

“We need to get those numbers up,” Hochul said. “If we get that high — we get that up to 50, 60, 70, 80 — you don’t have to worry about when they’re in school at all. That eliminates the worry. I don’t know why any parent would allow that to continue.”

“Come on,” Hochul added. “Let’s protect our kids.”