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New York City Sees COVID Positivity Rate, Fueled By Omicron Variant, Double In 3 Days

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and the latest surge in cases, one of the city's top doctors said Thursday, "We've never seen this before."

The doctor was talking about the positivity rate, which has doubled in just three days, and lawmakers, business owners and New Yorkers are all taking notice, CBS2's Dick Brennan reported.

It's clear that Mayor Bill de Blasio wanted to convey the urgency of the situation, that perhaps people distracted by the holidays haven't noticed how the Omicron variant has changed things and he said now it's time to act.

"We need to stop this variant. The variant moves fast. We need to move faster," de Blasio said.

Watch: Mayor De Blasio's Latest Update On COVID-19

The mayor said the COVID explosion has him doubling down on the urgency to increase vaccinations and mask-wearing, and city Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi said things will only get worse.

"We are seeing a surge ahead of the holidays. The seven-day average for new cases has tripled in the last month, and all boroughs remain in high transmission," Chokshi said.

So the mayor now plans for the city to distribute 1 million K-95 masks for free. It will launch an aggressive media campaign to promote boosters and increase inspections to enforce the state's mask mandates, in addition to efforts to make testing more available and convenient.

"We will be distributing rapid, at-home tests. Half a million rapid, at-home tests will be distributed for free through community organizations, directly to the grass roots," de Blasio said.

The city Department of Health said the key to staying ahead of COVID is keeping hospitalizations down. Right now, they are increasing steadily, but not radically. The commissioner said that's where vaccinations become crucial.

"Unvaccinated New Yorkers are eight times more likely to have a COVID-19 infection and they are 13 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19," Chokshi said.

A fed-up Gov. Kathy Hochul said she wouldn't have had to reinstate the mask mandate if more people were vaccinated, CBS2's Jessica Layton reported.

"I'm just curious. Has anybody heard what I said today about the situation we're in? This is a crisis. This is a health care crisis and people are going to die," Hochul said.

The city said it would be sending inspectors to Radio City Music Hall, after reports surfaced saying it wasn't enforcing the vaccination rule for kids ages 5-11. Hours later, Madison Square Garden, which owns Radio City, said it would comply.

"Everyone's got to follow this mandate. It's a serious moment and it's a very simple mandate," de Blasio said.

The COVID surge is also raising questions about quarantine protocols.

"If you're fully vaccinated, you don't necessarily have to quarantine after a high-risk exposure unless you have symptoms. However, if you are fully vaccinated you should get a test five to seven days after that exposure, and until you're negative, wear a mask in indoor places and public places as well," Touro College of Medicine's Dr. Niket Sonpal told Layton.

Sonpal admitted it's tricky because the rules are different state to state, business to business.

What does the virus case uptick mean for holiday celebrations? The city has already announced that it is going forward with its Times Square New Year's Eve plans. De Blasio said so far they are still on, but in light of Omicron, that could change.

"We are gonna watch very carefully -- it's still more than two weeks away -- and if at any point we need to change the plan, we will," de Blasio said.

The mayor said he is looking into the possibility of requiring booster shots for municipal workers. As he put it, it's on the "front burner," and he will have more information soon.

CBS2's Jessica Layton contributed to this report, which first appeared on Dec. 16.

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