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Between Christmas and New Year’s, doctors expect the US omicron surge to grow

A sign on the door of a coffee shop in Manhattan asks for proof of vaccination and the wearing of a mask on the day that a mask mandate went into effect in New York on Dec. 13. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

(CNN) — COVID-19 numbers keep soaring as travelers scatter back across the country after Christmas and Americans prepare for another holiday weekend.

The U.S. is now averaging 198,404 new COVID-19 cases each day, according to Sunday data from Johns Hopkins University. That’s 47% higher than a week ago and the highest such number since January 19.

“I think we’re going to see half a million cases a day — easy — sometime over the next week to 10 days,” CNN medical analyst Dr. Jonathan Reiner said on Sunday.

About 71,000 Americans were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Sunday, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

And an average of 1,408 Americans died from COVID-19 each day during the week ending Sunday, according to Johns Hopkins. That’s a 17% increase from the prior week.

With the highly contagious omicron variant, “We’re certainly going to continue to see a surge (in cases) for a while,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Monday.

Looking ahead to New Year’s Eve on Friday, small gatherings of fully vaccinated people will be safe, Fauci said. But he advised people to avoid large parties where they don’t know the vaccination status of all guests.

“When you are talking about a New Year’s Eve party where you have 30, 40, 50 people celebrating, you do not know the status of the vaccination, I would recommend strongly: Stay away from that this year,” said Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“There will be other years to do that. But not this year.”

More children are getting hospitalized with COVID-19

Pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations keep rising, and they’re nearing the record high set in early September.

For the week ending December 24, an average of 262 children were hospitalized with COVID-19 on any given day, according to data from the DHHS and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That’s almost a 35% jump from the previous week. The record daily average of child COVID-19 hospitalizations was 342 per day in late August and early September.

About 75,000 children, from babies up to age 17, have been hospitalized with COVID-19 since August 2020, according to CDC data.

New York City enacts new vaccine mandate

New York state broke a single-day record for new COVID-19 cases, with 49,708 new COVID-19 cases reported on Christmas Eve, according to data released on Sunday by Gov. Kathy Hochul’s office.

“As we come home from holiday gatherings, it is as important as ever to take precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19 this season,” Hochul said in a statement. “The vaccine is the best tool we have to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe as we head into the new year.”

The average number of daily new COVID-19 cases in New York City skyrocketed 644% in the past two weeks to 19,268, according to The New York Times.

The highly contagious omicron variant was a factor in New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision to implement a vaccine mandate for private sector employees, effective Monday. The updated rules require workers to have at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine by Monday and don’t allow employees to opt out through regular testing.

Children ages 5 to 11 in New York are now also required to show proof of at least one shot before being allowed into indoor dining, fitness or entertainment venues. And adults must show proof of two vaccinations for those areas.

The private-sector requirements align with those already in place for the city’s public sector employees and similar restrictions in major cities around the country.

“We need to take very bold action,” de Blasio said. “We’re seeing restrictions starting to come back. We’re seeing shutdowns,” he said. “We cannot let those restrictions come back. We cannot have shutdowns in New York.”

The city is still planning a “scaled back” New Year’s Eve celebration.

Health care workers get new isolation guidance — but not others

As more hospitals get overwhelmed, the CDC has issued new guidance that will allow some health care workers who get COVID-19 to return to work more quickly. Medical workers who test positive but don’t have symptoms can go back to work in seven days if they test negative within 48 hours of their return to work.

That “isolation time can be cut further if there are staffing shortages,” the CDC said Thursday.

But the new guidelines are only for health care workers. For the general public, the CDC still recommends those with COVID-19 isolate for 10 days — regardless of whether they have symptoms.

The CDC said it “continues to evaluate isolation and quarantine recommendations for the broader population as we learn about the omicron variant and will update the public as appropriate.”

The emergency guidance for health care workers was made because of concerns about the omicron variant and potential staff shortages, the CDC said.

About 75% of all beds in intensive care units in the country were in use and about 21% were occupied by COVID-19 patients, according to Sunday data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

At Tufts Medical Center in Boston, the new CDC guidance was welcome news.

“We have, as of this morning, 115 staff members out ill with COVID who have tested positive,” Chief Operating Officer Diana Richardson said Monday.

“But some of them are not as acutely ill. In fact, some of them are asymptomatic completely — we have a very vaccinated population. So it will help us to bring those individuals back into the workforce.”

Holiday travelers are stranded as omicron surges

Thousands of flights were canceled over the holiday weekend — partly due to winter weather but largely due to reduced airline staffing as employees called out sick.

More than 2,000 flights were canceled Monday, according to the flight tracking website FlightAware. That’s on top of roughly 1,200 Sunday flights that were canceled.

And at least four ocean cruise ships were turned away from ports or prohibited from letting passengers disembark this past week because of COVID-19 cases on board.

Sporting events have also been postponed or canceled because of increased spread of COVID-19. At least five college football bowl games have been affected, including two games called off over the weekend. Pro basketball and hockey also have been slowed by the virus.

The best way to protect against severe illness is to get vaccinated and boosted, Fauci said.

“Boosters are always good for any variant, but particularly for omicron,” he said.

“If you are vaccinated and not yet boosted, and your time comes for getting boosted, please get boosted. It’s going to make all the difference to prevent you from getting severe disease.”