People gathering in Times Square in New York City

Revelers wait in social distancing pens in Times Square ahead of celebrating New Year's Eve on December 31, 2021 in New York City. (Photo: Alexi Rosenfeld/ Getty Images)

NYC Officials Denounced for Holding New Year's Celebration Amid Omicron Surge

"This is a potential superspreader event," said one public health expert.

Public health experts expressed shock Friday as New York City went ahead with its plans to hold a scaled-back--but still large--New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square, with 15,000 people expected to pack the landmark to ring in 2022 as the city sets new records for Covid-19 cases.

Outgoing Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last week that the traditional New Year's ball drop will go on, prompting epidemiologists to warn that the event will carry risks for attendees and the city's already-strained healthcare facilities--as well as communities across the country, since many of the attendees are likely to be visiting from elsewhere.

"This is a potential superspreader event," said Dr. Oni Blackstock, founder of healthcare consulting group Health Justice, on Tuesday as the city reported more than 27,000 new cases and a positivity rate surpassing 19%.

Blackstock noted that major international cities including Tokyo, Paris, and Rome have canceled their public New Year's celebrations due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant.

"NYC needs to follow suit," she said.

New York City Council Member Mark D. Levine, the chair of the Council's Health Committee, concurred.

The city is taking some precautions aside from limiting the number of participants at the event--which last year was attended by only frontline workers and their family members but generally draws tens of thousands of in-person viewers.

"If we run out of hospital capacity, then we are in a different world of hurt."

All attendees over the age of five will have to provide proof of vaccination and masks will be required.

Still, New York University epidemiologist Dr. Danielle Ompad told the New York Times Thursday, "given the increase in Covid cases due to Omicron, I would not go to Times Square to watch the ball drop."

Earlier this week, the city was forced to shut down an entire subway line between Queens and Manhattan due to the number of transit workers who called in sick. The New York City Fire Department issued a call to New Yorkers to refrain from calling 911 except in cases of real emergencies, after receiving calls from sick residents who wanted ambulances to take them to hospitals for Covid-19 tests. The department reported that a third of its paramedics were out sick this week.

More than 100,000 people in the city have tested positive since Christmas Day.

Emergency physician Dr. Kelly Doran said while an outdoor celebration is safer than an indoor gathering, the event is likely to send thousands of people into the city's subway.

"How do you think people get to Times Square?" tweeted Doran. "Where do they go afterwards? And how much of our first responder resources will this event consume with [emergency medical services] already struggling?"

The Mt. Sinai Health System in the city announced Wednesday that it was suspending elective surgeries in its hospitals. Although the city's intensive care units are far less full than they were during last winter's surge, before vaccines were widely available, Levine told the Times that illness among healthcare workers is causing a "squeeze."

Doran called the plan to go ahead with the celebration--supported both by de Blasio and incoming Democratic Mayor Eric Adams, who will be sworn in at the event--"pretty unreal" considering the surge in Omicron cases.

"Right now we're in the public health crisis of our lifetimes," CNN medical analyst Jonathan Reiner told "CNN Newsroom" Thursday. "And although I love a big celebration... all those people have to get to Times Square via some way, they're all going to be on public transportation, they're going to be on the subways. And I think frankly it should have been canceled the way most European cities have done."

"If we run out of hospital capacity," he added, "then we are in a different world of hurt."

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