By Tyler Clifford and Lisa Shumaker
NEW YORK (Reuters) -Universities canceled events, the National Football League reported a record number of cases, and long lines formed at New York City testing clinics as a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases and concern over the Omicron variant disrupted American life anew.
The NFL and two other major North American sports leagues scrambled to control outbreaks as the threat of widespread schedule disruptions loomed larger.
U.S. diplomatic efforts fell victim to the new spate of infections with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken cutting short a brief trip to Southeast Asia after learning of a COVID-19 case in the press corps accompanying him.
Over the past month, new cases have risen nearly 50% to a seven-day average of 122,000 new infections per day, according to a Reuters tally. At this point in 2020, the United States was reporting an average of 219,000 new infections per day.
Across the country, COVID hospitalizations have risen about 40% over the last month, according to a Reuters tally
At least 36 states have reported confirmed cases of the Omicron variant, representing about 3% of COVID-19 cases in the country, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a briefing on Wednesday.
At a COVID testing site in the Chicago suburb of Geneva, Illinois, the number of people seeking tests has nearly doubled in the past two weeks.
“Ever since Thanksgiving more people have been coming in,” said Mona Kawaiah, who collects the test kits. The site has gone from 30 tests per day before Thanksgiving to now 52 tests per day. “Some of them have the flu symptoms and want to make sure it’s not COVID,” she said.
The Metropolitan Opera in New York said on Wednesday it would require audiences and staff to show proof of a booster shot starting in January. In what is thought to be the first such move to stricter rules in New York City theaters, the requirement will take effect on Jan. 17, 2022, the Met Opera said in a statement on its website.
The United States leads the world in the daily average number of new infections reported, accounting for one in every 5 infections reported worldwide. There have been 50 million infections and more than 800,000 coronavirus-related deaths reported in the country since the pandemic began.
Urging Americans to get booster shots, top U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said an additional dose of currently available COVID-19 vaccines work against the Omicron variant of the coronavirus and there appears to be no need for variant-specific boosters.
In Harlem on Wednesday, about two dozen people stood in a queue to enter the City MD clinic on busy 125th Street. A staff member came out just before 4 p.m. to announce there was a two-hour wait, owing in part to efforts to disinfect rooms between patients.
Chris Johnson, a sophomore at Fordham University, said he would wait as long as it takes. “I gotta get a test to take my final tomorrow,” he said.
Students at New Jersey’s Princeton University will take all finals remotely starting on Thursday. The school ordered the cancellation of all indoor gatherings with food, and those where face coverings cannot be worn, effective from Thursday to Jan. 7, the university’s dean Jill Dolan said in a statement.
New York University in New York City canceled all “non-essential” gatherings and events. Provost Katherine Fleming said in a statement on Wednesday that data from a testing program had shown a considerable acceleration in the rate of new cases.
“It’s not a cause for alarm, but it is a cause for concern, caution, and appropriate actions,” she said, adding that the school is strongly encouraging final exams be taken online.
In retailing, Apple Inc temporarily closed three retail stores in Miami, Annapolis and Ottawa after a rise in COVID-19 cases and exposures among employees, the iPhone maker said on Wednesday.
The National Hockey League, already dealing with a backlog of postponed games, was bracing for more headaches as the Nashville Predators, Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes and Calgary Flames confirmed players and staff had been forced into COVID-19 protocols.
After the NFL reported a record 37 positive tests on Monday, another 22 players were added to the COVID reserve list on Tuesday.
The surge continued into Wednesday with ESPN reporting the Washington Football Team added eight players to COVID protocols and the Cleveland Browns placed quarterback Baker Mayfield and head coach Kevin Stefanski on the reserve list.
In the National Basketball Association, Sacramento Kings interim head coach Alvin Gentry tested positive for COVID-19 and will miss Wednesday night’s game against the Washington Wizards.
(Reporting by Tyler Clifford in New York and Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien, Steve Keating, Barbara Goldberg, Akash Srir; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Howard Goller)