By Stephanie Stahl

CAMDEN, N.J. (CBS) — New Jersey has reached another troubling milestone with a record number of COVID-19 cases. Officials are urging people to take precautions with holiday gatherings as they predict an especially difficult start to the new year.

This is an alarming number and it’s expected to get worse, but most new cases are mild. Hospitals in New Jersey have an increasing number of patients, but they’re not serious COVID-19 cases.

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New Jersey has 9,711 new confirmed COVID-19 cases — the highest single-day total.

“What we’re hearing and what we’re being told is the omicron. It’s so much more easily spread,” said Paul Minnick, senior vice president of Virtua Health. “We’re seeing in with younger patients and we’re seeing that community spread where people are having exposures many not vaccinated.”

With cases rising, there’s a growing demand for testing.

There were long lines again in Philadelphia at the Martin Luther King Older Adult Center for free at-home rapid test kits. With Christmas days away, the rush is on to make sure holiday gatherings are safe.

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“I’m very worried right now. My family was all supposed to go, and like 80% have COVID,” Jerry Patton, who was getting tested Wednesday, said. “They’re all vaccinated, but 80% of them tested positive. So it’s got me on edge.”

With 109 million people expected to travel during the holidays, many are worried.

“We’re all so tired of this,” Chester County Coroner Dr. Christina Vandepol said. “I think we just need to realize it’s not over until it’s over.”

Vandepol says there’s been a sharp increase in COVID-19 deaths recently, mainly among people who are not vaccinated and she’s fearful for the new year.

“I hate to feel like a Grinch, but I’m concerned that we’re going to have additional travel gatherings and with the omicron variant now circulating, that we may see a big spike in deaths again in January,” Vandepol said.

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Health officials say the best way to avoid a January surge is for people to get vaccinated and boosted while also wearing masks in public and practicing social distancing. Important precautions since about 40% of Americans remain unvaccinated.

Stephanie Stahl