The trajectory of daily new positive COVID-19 cases in New York since Thanksgiving. Image: New York State Department of Health

New York State reported a record number of confirmed COVID-19 cases Thursday.

New data from the State Department of Health for Wednesday showed 38,835 new confirmed cases statewide, eclipsing the former one-day high of 19,942 on Jan 14. There were roughly the same number of test results reported on both dates: 324,671 on Jan. 14 and 324,786 on Dec. 22, but the positivity rate was 6.1% on Jan. 14 and 12% on Wednesday, a 97% increase. There were 28,924 new cases on Tuesday.

Gov. Kathy Hochul said in a Christmas Eve “virtual update” that the rise in new cases, which she said health officials fully expected, is at least partly a result of an increase in testing. There were 204,361 tests reported on Dec. 22, 2020 and 324,786 tests reported on the same date this year.

Suffolk County also reported a record number of new daily cases: 3,682 on Wednesday, up from 2,138 on Tuesday. There were 220.6 new cases per 100,000 population, nearly double the number a week earlier.

New positive cases in Suffolk County from Thanksgiving to Dec. 22, 2021. Image: New York State Department of Health.

COVID test positivity rates Wednesday, both statewide and in Suffolk County, far exceeded any previously recorded number since testing became widely available in late May 2020, after the initial coronavirus outbreak had subsided.

The statewide test positivity rate was 12% Wednesday. In Suffolk, it was 15.2%. At the peak of the initial outbreak in March and April 2020, test positivity rates ran to 50%, but that was a reflection of the small number of tests being administered at that time due to lack of availability; tests were almost always done on people who were symptomatic and seeking medical care.

The week leading up to Christmas last year saw a statewide test positivity rate of 5.6% on a seven-day rolling average — 7.1% in Suffolk County. This year, that average was 9.5% statewide and 12.3% in Suffolk.

New York’s 2020 winter surge — rising case numbers after the Thanksgiving holiday that kept increasing through Christmas and New Year’s, fueled by indoor holiday gatherings — peaked in mid-January. Hospitalizations peaked in late January. The winter surge last year was before the arrival of the more contagious delta variant in New York in July.

The unprecedented spike is believed to be due to the rapid spread of the even more contagious omicron variant in New York, where the new variant comprised 62.4% of uploaded sequences from New York labs between Dec. 9 and Dec. 22. It was first detected here in early December.

Despite rising case numbers, hospital admissions statewide this year are roughly 75% what they were last year. But hospitalizations are continuing to rise, which concerns public health officials due to the potential for a much bigger post-holiday surge this winter. Even if hospitalizations are proportionately fewer, hospitals may easily become overwhelmed due to the sheer numbers of infections and the potential for hospital staff contractions due to infection.

Gov. Kathy Hochul gives an online “update” about the COVID-19 situation in New York on Christmas Eve. Image: video screenshot.

“This is not delta. This is not the first variant. This is omicron, which thus far — and again, I have to qualify this — thus far has demonstrated, as we’ve watched around the globe and other places where it hit first that it’s not as severe in its impact,” Hochul said during this morning’s update.

But the governor urged New Yorkers to “be smart” about their holiday gatherings.

People who are feeling “just a little under the weather” to stay home. “Don’t be that person” who attends a gathering despite exhibiting symptoms. “That is selfish because you can harm someone,” Hochul said.

Since individuals who have asymptomatic infection can spread the disease, the governor urged people gathering with vulnerable family members — such as the older and immunocompromised people — to wear a mask and maintain social distance to help protect them.

Hochul also announced new guidance for returning to work for essential workers who have been infected.

Following a new recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, essential workers may be allowed by employers to return after to work after five days of a positive test if they are fully vaccinated and are asymptomatic, or if symptoms are resolving and they have no fever and are not on medication. They must wear a mask at work, Hochul said.

The state would publish the new guidance soon, she said.

The governor again urged everyone who is not vaccinated to get a vaccine. Even though omicron can infect even people who are fully vaccinated or previously infected, the governor said “unvaccinated people are 20 times more likely to die than people who are vaccinated.”

Hochul did not provide an opportunity for the media to ask questions following her speech, which lasted about 25 minutes and was live-streamed on the governor’s website. It has been posted to the governor’s YouTube channel.

>>See more coronavirus coverage, updates, and charts

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.