As new COVID-19 cases soar in New York and across the United States, reaching new record peaks, evidence is mounting that the highly contagious omicron variant fueling the spike causes less severe illness than any previous variant.

Omicron is affecting the upper respiratory tract, causing milder symptoms, officials at the World Health Organization said this week. Previous strains more effectively attacked the lower respiratory tract and did more damage to the lungs.

Omicron is “replicating in the upper respirator tract — and that’s different from Delta and other variants, including the ancestral strain which replicated in the lower respiratory tract, in the lungs,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, said in a briefing yesterday.

The replication of omicron in the upper respiratory tract also helps the virus spread more efficiently, Van Kerkhove said. Other factors contributing to its rapid spread include the new variant’s many mutations that make it more effective at adhering to human cells, and its “immune escape,” enhancing its ability to reinfect people, Van Kerkhove said.

“But the sheer volume of cases that we are seeing around the world is really astonishing,” she said. “And even with a lower risk of hospitalization, we’ll still seeing a large number of people who require clinical care who are hospitalized — and that will overburden the system,” Van Kerkhove said.

New confirmed daily cases in New York on Friday were more than 4.5 times higher than last winter’s peak (on a 7-day rolling average) — 16,335 on Jan. 11, 2021 versus 73,688 on Jan. 7 this year.

Hospitalizations across the state on Jan. 7 were nearly 30% higher than last winter’s peak. But the percentage of hospitalized patients in ICU — indicative of more severe disease — was 8.5% lower than the peak in 2021 and those in ICU and intubated — people most severely ill — as more than 30% lower.

The NYC and Long Island regions have the highest rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state with about 66.2 COVID patients hospitalized per 100,000 people. That’s about 28% higher than the per-100k hospitalization rate in the next highest region of the state, the Mid-Hudson region.

There were 2,112 people hospitalized in the LI Region on Jan. 7, compared to 1,701 at last winter’s peak on Jan. 18, 2021. But the percentage of patients requiring ICU care is lower this year than last — 12% this year versus 16% in 2021— as is the percentage of patients who are intubated.

The same patterns exists for cases and hospitalizations in Suffolk County. The number of new daily cases on Jan. 7 topped 5,750 on a 7-day average, versus a 7-day average of 1,877 new daily cases at last winter’s peak on Jan. 11. The number of people hospitalized on Jan. 7 was 948 versus last winter’s peak of 863. But the number of patients in ICU is lower this year than last and the number intubated is lower still.

>>>See hospitalization data visualized here.

For context, while this year’s COVID-19 hospitalizations are higher than last winter’s peak days statewide, in the LI Region and in Suffolk County, the current number of hospitalizations is still far below the peak in the spring of 2020, when hospitalizations were more than double what they are now (as of Jan. 7.)

The actual number of COVID-19 infections is likely much higher than the lab-confirmed cases being reported by the state health department. The confirmed cases do not account for positive home tests, false-negative home tests and, of course, asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic people who have not gotten tested.

Health officials stress that unvaccinated people are much more likely to experience severe disease from infection with the virus that causes COVID-19.

There are 58.3 hospitalizations per 100,000 among unvaccinated individuals (age 18 and up), but 4.6 hospitalizations per 100,000 among vaccinated individuals, according to the most recent data (week of Dec. 27) published by the state health department.

Locally, 1,015 people were admitted to hospitals in Suffolk in the week ending Friday, Jan. 7; 812 were discharged. There were 96 fatalities, bringing the cumulative today to 3,909 since March 2020.

There were 39,625 confirmed new cases in Suffolk during the week, a 7-day average of 382 new cases per 100,000 people.

Like everywhere else, Riverhead sees record number of confirmed cases

In Riverhead, there were 910 new confirmed cases during the week ended Jan. 7 — the most in a 7-day period since the pandemic began — bringing the cumulative total reported for the town to 6,838 confirmed cases since March 2020.

The health department does not report tests administered for individual towns, nor does it report fatalities for individual towns.

There were 58 patients with COVID-19 in Peconic Bay Medical Center as of Jan. 7, the same as last winter’s peak, but 35% lower than the spring 2020 peak of 89.

Local hospital officials say a substantial number of patients in the hospital with COVID-19 were admitted for other ailments but tested positive when admitted, according to a report by the Southampton Press.

The overwhelming majority of the patients who have required intensive care because of acute COVID-19 symptoms have been unvaccinated, PBMC Executive Director told the newspaper.

There were 71 new COVID-19 admissions to PBMC during the week ended Jan. 7, according to data published by the state health department.

Gov. Kathy Hochul said this week the state will begin requiring hospitals to report separately inpatient admissions for COVID-19 disease and inpatient admissions for other illnesses that test positive for COVID-19.

There were four COVID-19 fatalities at Peconic Bay Medical Center over the week, bringing the cumulative total fatalities at the Riverhead hospital to 200 as of Jan. 7, according to state health department data.

>>>More COVID-19 coverage, data and updates

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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.