Airlines had canceled more than 2,500 flights across the United States by afternoon on Saturday, by far the worst day in the industry’s weeklong struggle with bad weather and crew shortages.
The cancellations mounted amid reports of heavy snowfall across much of the nation’s midsection, and if the pattern of the last week holds, many more could be canceled by day’s end.
The industry canceled thousands of trips, about 5.7 percent of all scheduled flights, in the week ending on Friday, according to FlightAware, an aviation data provider. Every major U.S. carrier made deep cuts on Saturday, too. Nearly half the cancellations were concentrated at Chicago’s two airports, where heavy snow and strong winds were expected throughout the day into Sunday.
Southwest Airlines said it planned to suspend operations at those airports on Saturday afternoon. The airline cut over 470 flights nationwide, more than any other U.S. carrier, accounting for about 13 percent of its schedule.
“As always, we have safety top-of-mind and, for us, that also means keeping people from driving to airports to wait on long-delayed flights whenever we can avoid that,” Southwest said in a statement.
Delta Air Lines scrubbed 9 percent of scheduled trips, while American and United Airlines each cut 7 percent. In a statement, United, which has its headquarters in Chicago, said that the nationwide spike in coronavirus cases had affected its ability to staff flights, too.
The cancellations contribute to a disappointing time for the industry, both to the end of the holiday season and to a convulsive year characterized by revival and setbacks. Widespread vaccinations early in 2021 gave way to a summer travel boom that was then stifled somewhat by the Delta virus variant. The industry recovery continued to build again in the fall, only to be slowed again by the Omicron variant.
Millions of people have been flying daily within the United States this holiday season. But passenger traffic is still down 15 percent or more from 2019 on most days, according to Transportation Security Administration data. Despite the recent turmoil, U.S. carriers canceled 1.5 percent of scheduled flights in 2021 compared with 1.6 percent in 2019, according to FlightAware.
As the Omicron variant of the coronavirus continues to fuel a nationwide surge, North Carolina is seeing a drastic increase in Covid-19 cases. The state has reported a 166 percent increase in infections in two weeks, according to a New York Times database, and some counties are struggling to keep up with testing demands.
The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reported that there were 19,174 new Covid-19 cases on Friday — a record high for the second straight day.
On Thursday, the department said in a statement that it was the “highest one-day number of Covid-19 cases” with 18,571, which was 60 percent higher than the previous daily record of 11,581 set in January 2021 after a holiday surge. The current jump in infections is most likely driven by the highly transmittable Omicron variant, according to local reports.
True case numbers are likely to be even higher, though, since at-home tests are not reported by the state.
The department also said that hospitalizations in the state had nearly doubled since the beginning of December. The number of people visiting emergency rooms for “Covid-like illness” on Thursday also set a record with 4,171 visits. The department added that 89 percent of people in intensive care for Covid-19 in the state were unvaccinated.
According to a New York Times database, intensive care units in North Carolina are 82 percent full. The average I.C.U. occupancy rate nationwide is 79 percent. Currently, only 57 percent of the state is fully vaccinated, trailing the national average, which is 62 percent.
On Thursday, the Wayne County Health Department announced that it had run out of coronavirus tests and would have no tests available “until further notice.”
“Demand for testing has increased significantly nationwide over the past two weeks, and additional test kits have been ordered from the state,” the department said. So far, the county has had the slowest rise in cases in the state.
In New Hanover County, a testing drive on Thursday had to end early because the location ran out of tests, according to a statement from the county.
Wake County, where the daily case count seems to be the highest in the state, announced on Saturday that although its testing sites would be open, there were no available appointments until Monday. The county had doubled its Covid-19 testing appointments to 13,000 daily slots last week “to help meet rapidly increasing community needs,” according to a statement. But the increase failed to meet demand.
Universities in the state are also taking more precautions. Duke University will have remote instruction until Jan. 18, the university announced on Friday. Residence halls will open as planned on Sunday, but the university is asking students to delay their return until instruction resumes as normal.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is recommending that students and professors get booster shots when eligible and said it would announce any changes to on-campus operations by Monday.
A cruise ship operated by a German line and carrying over 4,000 people has been held up in Lisbon after an outbreak of Covid-19 among its crew.
The AIDAnova docked in Lisbon on Dec. 29 and was due to sail a day later toward the island of Madeira, in time to watch a New Year’s Eve fireworks display in the port of Funchal, the main town on the island. But its departure was canceled, and passengers started the year on the Portuguese mainland instead after 52 crew members tested positive for the coronavirus.
The 52 crew members were taken ashore and were being kept isolated in various hotels in Lisbon. All were vaccinated and none are experiencing severe symptoms.
The ship arrived in Lisbon with a crew of 1,353 and 2,844 passengers, most of them Germans, the director of the port of Lisbon, Diogo Vieira Branco, told Lusa, Portugal’s national news agency. The passengers were allowed to go ashore in Lisbon.
AIDA Cruises, the German operator of the ship, could not immediately be reached for comment. But the line told the German news agency DPA that it was trying to find fresh crew members before deciding whether it could resume its itinerary.
The ship was set to sail next to the Canary Islands, a Spanish archipelago off the northwestern coast of Africa. Earlier in December, another German operator, Tui, was forced to cut short a trip because of a coronavirus outbreak on one of its ships, Mein Schiff 4, which had docked in Las Palmas, the largest city in the Canary Islands.
Registered in Italy, the AIDAnova was launched in 2018 as the world’s first cruise ship powered entirely by liquefied natural gas. On its website, AIDA Cruises specifies that all passengers must be tested for the coronavirus before boarding and that further tests can be required depending on the cruise.
CAPE TOWN — In an almost empty cathedral, with an unvarnished, rope-handled coffin placed before the altar, South Africa said farewell on Saturday to Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu with the simplicity that he had planned.
Archbishop Tutu’s death last Sunday at age 90 was followed by a week of mourning, as the world remembered his powerful role both in opposing apartheid and in promoting unity and reconciliation after its defeat.
But his funeral in a rain-soaked Cape Town, where pandemic regulations limited attendance to 100 and discouraged crowds outside, was far more subdued than the packed stadiums and parade of dignitaries that mourned South Africa’s other Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Nelson Mandela. It was exactly what the archbishop had wanted.
A hymn sung in his mother tongue, Setswana; Mozart’s “Laudate Dominum”; and a sermon delivered by an old friend were all part of what Archbishop Tutu intended for his requiem Mass, celebrated at St. George’s Cathedral. There would be no official speeches beyond the eulogy, and the only military presence allowed at the funeral of a man who once said, “I am a man of peace, but not a pacifist,” came when an officer brought South Africa’s national flag to be handed to his widow, Nomalizo Leah Tutu.
The coronavirus pandemic further scaled down proceedings. With a limited guest list, the only international heads of state in attendance had a close relationship with the archbishop, like King Letsie III of Lesotho, who spent time with the Tutu family as a child at a boarding school in England. A former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson, read one of the prayers during the requiem Mass. With singing discouraged in closed spaces to reduce the spread of the virus, the choir performed in an adjacent hall.
In the week leading up to the funeral, those who were close with Archbishop Tutu said that as he became increasingly frail, they saw a man distressed by South Africa’s enduring social and economic inequality. In the past two years, the pandemic and resulting lockdowns have further deepened poverty, bringing unemployment to record levels.
Under Covid-19 restrictions, at a public viewing site erected in the Grand Parade, Cape Town’s main public square, barely 100 people gathered to watch the service on a big screen. Those who braved the rain said they wanted to say goodbye to a “great man,” like Laurence and Joslyn Vlotman, who brought an umbrella and small camp stool. But many, like Meg Jordi, sat on the ground.
Michael Jatto, a British national on vacation in South Africa from England, took his two daughters to the square to learn about the archbishop — “for us as Africans, for our children to see a great man being shown in a positive light.”
— Lynsey Chutel
SEOUL — Kim Jong-un has begun his second decade as North Korea’s leader with a vow to alleviate the country’s chronic food shortages, state media reported on Saturday. The shortages have been worsened by the coronavirus pandemic and international sanctions against his nuclear weapons program.
Mr. Kim, 37, presided over a five-day meeting this week of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party, which drew more attention than usual because it came at the end of his first decade in power.
On Saturday, New Year’s Day, the North’s state media carried lengthy reports on the meeting. They mentioned no diplomatic overtures from Mr. Kim toward the United States or South Korea, and only a brief reiteration of his frequent promise to increase the North’s military power. But much space was devoted to the subject of food shortages, which many analysts see as the biggest shortcoming of Mr. Kim’s leadership.
One of the first promises that Mr. Kim made after inheriting power from his father, Kim Jong-il, a decade ago was that long-suffering North Koreans would “never have to tighten their belt again.” But that goal has remained elusive. Several months ago, Mr. Kim issued a rare warning that the North faced a “tense” food situation.
At the party meeting that ended on Friday, Mr. Kim pledged to “increase the agricultural production and completely solve the food problem,” specifying production goals “to be attained phase by phase in the coming 10 years,” the North’s Korean Central News Agency said. But Mr. Kim did not appear to introduce any significant agricultural measures, except to forgive all cooperative farms’ debts to the government.
Mr. Kim also called it a “top priority” to tighten loopholes in the North’s campaign against the pandemic. North Korea has claimed that it had no Covid-19 cases, and it has rejected offers of millions of vaccine doses, leaving its population vulnerable to explosive outbreaks should its borders reopen.
There are no signs that North Korea is in danger of the kind of devastating famine that it suffered in the late 1990s. But its grain production totaled only 4.69 million tons this year, leaving a shortage of 800,000 tons, according to estimates released this month by South Korea’s Rural Development Administration. In July, the United States Department of Agriculture estimated that 16.3 million people in the North — 63.1 percent of the population — were “food insecure.”
In the past, North Korea has made up for its agricultural shortfalls with foreign aid and imports. But in response to the pandemic, it has rejected outside aid and shut its borders, making it harder to import fertilizers or farm equipment from neighboring China, the North’s only major trading partner and donor. Pandemic restrictions have also hurt the country’s unofficial markets, which helped circulate food.
Eric Leroy Adams was sworn in as the 110th mayor of New York City early Saturday in a festive but pared-down Times Square ceremony, a signal of the formidable task before him as he begins his term while coronavirus cases are surging anew.
Mr. Adams, 61, the son of a house cleaner who was a New York City police captain before entering politics, has called himself “the future of the Democratic Party,” and pledged to address longstanding inequities as the city’s “first blue-collar mayor,” while simultaneously embracing the business community.
Yet not since 2002, when Michael R. Bloomberg took office shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, has an incoming mayor confronted such daunting challenges in New York City. Even before the latest Omicron-fueled surge, the city’s economy was still struggling to recover, with its 9.4 percent unemployment rate more than double the national average. Murders, shootings and some other categories of violent crimes rose early in the pandemic and have remained higher than before the virus began to spread.
Mr. Adams’s first task as mayor, however, will be to help New Yorkers navigate the Omicron variant and a troubling spike in cases. The city has recorded over 40,000 cases per day in recent days, and the number of hospitalizations is growing. The city’s testing system, once the envy of the nation, has struggled to meet demand and long lines form outside testing sites.
Concerns over the virus caused some rejiggering of inauguration plans: Alvin Bragg, the first Black person to hold the office of Manhattan district attorney, postponed his inauguration ceremony to March 6 because of Covid concerns; he took the oath in a private ceremony after midnight.
Mr. Adams canceled his inauguration ceremony indoors at Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, which was meant to be a tribute to the voters outside Manhattan who elected him. Instead, Mr. Adams chose the backdrop of the ball-drop crowd, which itself had been limited for distancing purposes to just a quarter of the usual size.
Still, his swearing-in ceremony in Times Square, shortly after the ceremonial countdown, was jubilant, and the new mayor said he was hopeful about the city’s future.
“Trust me, we’re ready for a major comeback because this is New York,” Mr. Adams said, standing among the revelers earlier in the night.
— Emma Fitzsimmons
The United States is in the midst of a case spike averaging more than 300,000 new cases a day for the first time in the pandemic as holiday gatherings and travel coupled with the proliferation of the highly transmissible Omicron variant have propelled a surge across the country.
On Dec. 30, there was a daily average of 378,516 positive coronavirus cases, a 201 percent increase in the last two weeks, according to a New York Times database. Daily counts increased by 100,000 or more on three days running in the last week. Hospitalizations rose 25 percent in two weeks.
As the Omicron variant speeds through communities around the country, many more people, including those who have been vaccinated, will test positive for the coronavirus. Some projections forecast millions of new cases in the next week.
Here’s what you should know:
What Covid symptoms should I look out for?
Some symptom differences between Omicron and other variants have emerged from preliminary data, but experts are not certain they are meaningful. Data released from South Africa suggest that South Africans with Omicron often develop a scratchy or sore throat along with nasal congestion, a dry cough and muscle pain, especially low back pain.
Meanwhile, the Delta variant is still spreading as well. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most common Covid symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue, chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache, a loss of the sense of taste or smell and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.
If you are feeling sick, get tested immediately.
I’m not feeling sick. Should I still get tested?
You can be infected without showing symptoms, and could spread the virus to others, even if you are vaccinated. It is always better to get tested for the coronavirus, especially to try to halt the spread of Omicron. Given the high spread rates in recent weeks, if you have gone to a large gathering it is probably better to get tested.
The current guidance from the C.D.C. says vaccinated people don’t have to quarantine if they have had close contact with someone who has Covid, but that they should get tested five days later. Testing experts, however, say that’s probably not soon enough for Omicron, whose incubation period may be as short as 72 hours. Experts say that the best times to test are on Days 2, 3 and 4 after exposure.
What are my testing options?
There are several testing options. You can test at home with a rapid test purchased from a pharmacy, or you can go get a P.C.R. test at a lab.
If you tested positive after taking a rapid home test, you may want to take a second home test using a different brand or go to a testing center to confirm the result.
I tested positive. What do I do now?
If you’re in public or around people when you receive the news, put on a mask immediately. Then isolate yourself as quickly as possible, even if you don’t have symptoms.
Last week, the C.D.C slashed the isolation period from 10 to five days for those who are vaccinated, those without symptoms, or those without fevers whose other symptoms were resolving.
Americans leaving isolation should wear masks around others for an additional five days after their isolation periods have ended, officials said.
Some experts, though, have called the new guidelines “reckless” and have suggested to isolate for longer.
To calculate your isolation window, the C.D.C. advises that you consider Day 1 to be the first full day after you develop symptoms.
Even as coronavirus cases were shooting up at a dizzying pace in the United States this week, scientific evidence arrived providing hope for those who fall ill because of the Omicron variant — and for countries, states and communities battling its surge.
People infected with Omicron were about half as likely to be hospitalized as those with the Delta variant, according to a report from British health officials, and they were only one-third as likely to need emergency care. However, even though risk may be reduced on an individual level, Omicron is still expected to cause further strain on health care systems simply because of the enormous numbers of people it is and will be infecting.
The report, issued by the U.K. Health Security Agency, also showed that vaccination offers strong protection against Covid’s worst outcomes. The risk of hospitalization in Omicron cases was 65 percent lower in people who had received two doses, compared with the unvaccinated, and 81 percent lower in those who had gotten boosters.
Based on 528,176 Omicron cases and 573,012 Delta cases, the report is one of the largest real-world examinations of Omicron infections to date.
Several recent studies on lab animals and human tissues have offered a possible explanation for Omicron’s milder effects: It often concentrates in the nose, throat and windpipe, rather than damaging the lungs, as previous variants did.
More good news came in the form of a laboratory study from South African scientists suggesting that people who have recovered from an Omicron infection may be able to repel infections by the Delta variant. If Omicron outcompetes Delta, that could mean a future with fewer hospitalizations and deaths, making it easier for humanity to coexist with the virus.
Parents received some reassurance this week, as well. While there has been an increase in hospitalizations among children during Omicron’s advance, that appears to simply reflect the vast increase overall in infections. Doctors and researchers said that they were not seeing evidence that the variant was harder on children than previous versions of the virus. Preliminary data says that Omicron is actually milder in children, as has been the case with adults.
Also, one report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine showed that serious problems among children ages 5 to 11 who had received it were extremely rare, and another found that nearly all serious illnesses in a group of hundreds of pediatric hospitalizations occurred in children who had not been fully vaccinated.
In the bigger picture, the new year dawned with reasons for hope. Omicron will exact a toll, but after it does, more people will have Covid immunity. And newly approved post-infection treatments from Merck and Pfizer have the potential to make Covid a far less deadly disease.
In other science news:
Novavax plans to ask the Food and Drug Administration to authorize its vaccine this month. It would be the fourth coronavirus vaccine cleared by the federal government. In a report published last month, the company presented evidence that the vaccine, Nuvaxovid, was 90 percent effective against symptomatic infections and 100 percent effective in preventing moderate to severe disease. However, it was not clear how well it would work against the Omicron variant.
The C.D.C. shortened the recommended isolation period for many infected Americans to five days from 10 days. The change applied to those without symptoms, or those without fevers whose other symptoms were resolving. The agency also significantly lowered its estimate of Omicron’s nationwide prevalence. The C.D.C. had said that Omicron accounted for about 73 percent of variants circulating in the United States in the week ending Dec. 18, but it revised that figure to about 23 percent. On Tuesday, the agency’s estimate was that Omicron accounted for 59 percent of U.S. cases.
— Todd Gregory
The new year is here and has brought the Omicron-driven virus wave along with it.
More than 3.5 million people worldwide died from the coronavirus in 2021, almost twice as many as in 2020. The Delta variant wreaked havoc around the world, and now the Omicron variant, which has already become dominant in the United States, is fueling a spike in cases.
Omicron has spread to more than 100 countries after it was first identified in Botswana and South Africa in late November, infecting previously vaccinated people as well as those who have previously been infected. But South African officials say their country has now crested its Omicron wave, and new cases are falling, all without a major increase in deaths — offering hope that, while other countries may see similar weeks of intensity, they may also see drop-offs and fewer deaths than in previous waves.
For the United States, the coming weeks look difficult. “We’ll be in for a tough January, as cases will keep going up and peak, and then fall fast,” said Ali Mokdad, a University of Washington epidemiologist who is a former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention scientist.
While virus cases will still overwhelm hospitals, he said, he expects that the proportion of cases resulting in hospitalization will be lower than in earlier waves. Studies in animals suggest that Omicron does not invade the lungs as readily, which may help explain its generally lessened severity.
New estimates from researchers at Columbia University suggest that the United States could peak by Jan. 9 at around 2.5 million cases per week, though that number may go as high as 5.4 million. In New York City, the first U.S. metropolis to see a major surge, the researchers estimated that cases would peak by the first week of the new year.
“It’s shocking. It’s disturbing,” said Jeffrey Shaman, an epidemiologist who led the Columbia modeling work. “We’re seeing unprecedented numbers of Covid-19 cases.”
At the same time, Dr. Shaman said, there is a possibility that as cases fall in areas now experiencing major Omicron surges, other areas currently less affected will see their own Omicron surges, leading to a more rounded case curve nationally. The country’s hottest spots now are mostly clustered in the eastern half of the country.
The United States set a single-day record with 489,000 cases on Wednesday, and then broke the record again on Thursday when it tallied 582,000 cases, according to a New York Times database.
The number of new cases fell from those record numbers on Friday, when many states did not report data on New Year’s Eve. But the tally was still exceptionally high, with 443,000 new cases in just 28 states.
Even the staggering numbers from the past several days are undercounts, as the holiday season causes major distortions in testing and data reporting. The growing use of at-home tests makes the accounting even more questionable.
Genome sequencing shows that Omicron has exponential growth because some of its dozens of mutations appear to speed up transmission. But new studies, including one that surveyed one million coronavirus patients in England, support research that shows that two doses of vaccines are offering significant protection against severe disease, even though Omicron has been consistently better at evading vaccines.
Doctors are urging anyone who is unvaccinated to get their first vaccine dose as soon as possible, and anyone who is inoculated to get a booster shot.
“We are all tired and ready for this to be over,” said Dr. Brian Garibaldi, clinical lead of the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. “But we still have a lot of work to do and a long way to go.”
Sarah Cahalan contributed reporting.
At Sea Crest Nursing and Rehabilitation, a large nursing home that looks out on the Coney Island boardwalk, more than 100 residents have died of Covid-19 since the pandemic began.
Yet as the Omicron variant surges to a new high in New York, the nursing home is struggling to provide what medical experts believe is one of the strongest forms of protection against this latest wave of the virus: a booster shot.
Of the 274 residents of the nursing home, only 52 — fewer than one in five — had received a booster, according to state data from this past week.
Vaccine hesitancy among residents or their families, and residents being ineligible because they recently received second vaccine doses or monoclonal antibodies, are among the causes of the low booster rates at Sea Crest and other nursing homes.
But as Omicron spreads, health experts point to an additional problem: New York, like much of the country, was slow to push boosters before the variant arrived just a few weeks ago, and has largely left administering third doses to the long-term care facilities themselves, some of which are struggling with the task.
Now, with Omicron spreading rapidly in almost every region, health experts are calling on the city and state to do more to ensure that the most vulnerable — particularly nursing home residents — get boosters quickly.
“The city and state should be working together to try to make sure everyone in nursing homes is boosted,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, a former city health commissioner and a former C.D.C. director. He called nursing homes “ground zero for Covid.”