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Another COVID-19 Spike Arrives in the New Year, Bringing With It Similar Pandemic Woes

The first full day of the new year on Saturday began to look hauntingly familiar to other coronavirus surges that altered life as those in the region remember it before the pandemic struck in March 2020.

The first full day of the new year on Saturday began to look hauntingly familiar to other coronavirus surges that altered life as those in the region remember it before the pandemic struck in March 2020.

Covid-19 cases remained high. Some businesses closed temporarily. Many people wondered if they would resume or continue to work at home. And anxious parents worried their school-aged children might return to remote learning.

Blame the quickly proliferating Omicron variant.

“I’m hoping that because it’s so infectious, that it’s going to burn through the population a little quicker than Delta and that the wave will go up and down a little faster than some of the earlier waves,” said Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

The surge spoiled New Year’s weekend for many, including the staff of at least two favorite regional restaurants.

The Place on Lexington Avenue announced on Facebook it would be closed until Tuesday after more than half of its 40-person staff had tested positive, Jay McCarthy, one of the owners, wrote on the restaurant’s Facebook page.

Rick’s on Main in East Aurora also announced a temporary closure due to staffing issues caused by Covid-19. The restaurant will be closed “until we can ensure a safe working environment,” the restaurant said in a Facebook post.

On Saturday, there were 86 inpatients at Erie County Medical Center who were Covid positive, which was “the single-highest daily Covid inpatient census … since the onset of the pandemic,” hospital spokesman Peter Cutler said in an email. The hospital also has a “high volume” of patients being treated for behavioral health and other medical issues, Cutler said.

On Friday, there were 434 people with Covid in hospitals in Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua, Cattaraugus and Allegany counties, according to the most recent statistics from the state Department of Health. Eighty of those patients were in intensive care.

The number of Covid hospitalizations in the region has been declining for the last several weeks, though there has been a rise over the last six days, according to state data.

As of Thursday, there were 318 patients with Covid in hospitals in Erie County, 63 of whom were in the ICU, according to the county Department of Health.

Statewide, confirmed cases of Covid-19 continue to skyrocket. On Friday, 85,476 of 384,365 tests – or 22.2% of all tests – were positive, according to state Department of Health data.

The positivity rate for the entire state, on a seven-day average, as of Friday was 19.8%. At the start of December, New York’s seven-day positivity rate was 4.6%.

The latest data for Western New York wasn’t much better. The seven-day average positivity rate in the five-county region on Friday was 16.4%.

With at-home antigen tests in short supply and many asymptomatic cases, it is likely many thousands more have the new Omicron variant in the region.

For a number of reasons, including because the Omicron variant of Covid-19 is “extraordinarily infectious,” cases are likely to continue to rise in the region at least over the next couple of weeks, said Russo, the UB infectious disease expert.

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On average, depending on factors like behavior and vaccine status, prior waves of Covid have typically been about eight weeks of rising infections followed by eight weeks of those numbers falling, plus or minus two weeks, Russo said.

Russo is hopeful the Omicron wave will be a little more curtailed, with a sharper increase and decrease. Omicron is resistant, to a degree, from immunity from prior Covid infection, Russo said. And even those who’ve received a booster are somewhat susceptible to infection.

Cases have risen so sharply because Omicron has expanded the pool of people at risk of getting infected, Russo said.

And while the data suggests the Omicron variant, or at least the effects of it, may be less serious than earlier variants, it is still a potentially lethal virus. And with enough cases, there will still be people that develop serious disease from infection and have bad outcomes, he said. Those will primarily be in those who are unvaccinated, immunocompromised individuals and seniors.

“This is not the time to be totally cavalier and let your guard down,” Russo said.

He and other leading infectious control specialists have warned that the next six to eight weeks may become challenging as the more transmissible variant continues its march through Western New York and across the globe. Early indications suggest many will have milder cases than with the original SARS-CoV-2 virus and its other variants of concern, though the sheer numbers are expected to cause more sickness and potentially clog hospital emergency rooms and inpatient beds.

First responders, and hospital, nursing home and home health care workers are expected to be among those sickened in greater numbers.

So far in the region, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Dr. Joshua Lynch, a UBMD emergency medicine doctor who works at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital in Amherst, said the surge has created a staffing crunch but travel nurses have helped make up the shortfall. The emergency room has been a bit less busy this weekend and the flow manageable, he said, though he couldn’t predict what will come as the regional surge continues.

Hochul isn’t taking any chances. She announced Friday that the state health department will begin training New York National Guard soldiers to become certified EMTs to help with an expected staffing crunch.

She also announced six Covid-19 rapid antigen testing sites will open across the state starting Tuesday, including one that will operate from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday at Northwest Buffalo Community Center, 155 Lawn Ave..

Schedule appointments at gogettested.com.

More sites throughout the state are being planned. New Yorkers also can find sites at coronavirus.health.ny.gov/find-test-site-near-you.

Maryvale Schools Superintendent Joseph D’Angelo is among those concerned about safely getting students back into the classroom soon. To that end, he welcomed parents to come to the front doors of the high school, 1050 Maryvale Drive, from 9 to 11 a.m. Sunday for a free Covid-19 testing kit for every child in the family enrolled in a district school.

“We are doing this as an added layer of mitigation,” D’Angelo tweeted on Saturday, “because we need to keep our schools open and safe.”

The pandemic may feel like it’s “never-ending,” but especially because of those at risk for more severe disease, UB’s Russo urges everyone to “try to hang in there.”

“Your best strategy still is to try not to get infected,” he said. “And that’s that combination of vaccination, appropriate mask use and avoidance of risky behavior. And try to ride this wave out. And it’s not inevitable that you’re going to get infected.”

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Rajesh Tamada