The United States is a week away from a Christmas that was supposed to feel far more festive than the last. Two weeks away from a new year in which it was once possible to imagine the pandemic fading into the background of mostly normal life.
Instead, nearly 1,300 Americans are dying every day from the coronavirus, more than 120,000 are testing positive, and millions more are experiencing a kind of fear — that very particular kind amplified by a lack of information, and by the knowledge that even what seems clear this afternoon could change by evening — that they thought they had left behind.
“It’s as bad as we expected,” Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York said on Thursday, as the state’s caseload surged to levels not seen since February, driven in part by the fast-spreading Omicron variant. “We’re asking people to follow common sense. Get vaccinated, get boosted. Please don’t take a chance.”
New York officials reported 21,027 new coronavirus cases on Friday, the highest single-day total since the earliest days of pandemic, when the availability of testing was not as widespread as it is now.
While experts say vaccinated people with Omicron can expect asymptomatic or mild infections, those who are unvaccinated should not expect the same.
“For the unvaccinated, you are looking at a winter of severe illness and death for yourself, your families and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm,” Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, said on Friday.
Only 61 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, and far fewer have received a booster shot. The average daily number of new cases in the United States has increased 31 percent in the past two weeks, to about 124,000, according to The New York Times’s coronavirus tracker. Hospitalizations have risen 20 percent. Deaths have risen 23 percent. And experts expect these numbers to increase further as people travel and gather for the holiday season, creating more opportunities for the virus to spread.
In rural West Michigan, doctors in already packed hospitals are bracing for more cases of the new Omicron variant. Researchers are racing to determine the answers to urgent questions, including whether, as early data from South Africa has suggested, the variant might produce less severe illness.
Lines at New York City testing sites are circling the block. As restaurants close, Broadway shows are canceled and holiday parties are called off, it’s almost as if it were 2020 all over again.
Around the country, some employers are mandating boosters and postponing plans to return to the office. The U.S. military has begun to dismiss the small percentage of service members who refuse to get vaccinated.
Colleges and universities are canceling in-person gatherings, from graduation ceremonies to athletic competitions, and moving final exams online. When some students return from winter break, their classes will be online. And in grade schools, class closures are multiplying.
More than a dozen school districts in Cleveland canceled classes on Friday after multiple staff members called in sick. Prince George’s County in Maryland on Friday became the first big school district to shift to remote learning.
The national rates of infections, hospitalizations and deaths are still lower than last winter, before vaccines were available. But the highly contagious Omicron variant is arriving while hospitals in many parts of the country, especially the Midwest and Northeast, are still battling Delta. Health officials in New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands estimate that Omicron accounts for about 13 percent of their new cases.
On Friday, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, urged people to get vaccinated, wash their hands, improve ventilation and wear masks at indoor gatherings.
“I think we’re in a very different place this year than we were last year, and we really do want people to be able to gather and gather safely,” she said. “We have the tools now to do it, and what we’re really saying is, please rely on those tools.”
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, likened the current situation to the darkest moments of a war.
“It’s sort of like in the beginning of World War II, when we were losing all the battles and we were getting pushed back on the Pacific front and on the Europe front,” Dr. Fauci told CNN on Friday. “If we had said, ‘Oh my goodness, we’re all fatigued, let’s give up,’ that would not have been a good thing.”
The United States and the world are “at war with a very formidable enemy,” he said. “We’re going to win the war because we’re better than the virus.”
Mitch Smith and Abby Goodnough contributed reporting.