COVID Cases Spike as Questions Remain About Omicron’s Threat

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Dec. 17, 2021 — Top infectious disease officials expect a surge of COVID-19 cases after the holidays and say Omicron will soon take over as the dominant strain in the United States.

The best way to stay protected is by getting vaccinated and boosted, they say.

“For the unvaccinated, you’re looking at a winter of severe illness and death — for yourselves, families, and the hospitals who may soon overwhelm,” White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeff Zients said at a news briefing Friday. “We need the American people to do their part.”

The Omicron variant has been detected in at least 39 states and 75 countries, according to CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD.

The strain is more transmissible than the already highly infectious Delta variant, and although there was early evidence that it caused more mild disease, she said that is likely because many of those infected have been vaccinated and boosted.

“Although Delta continues to circulate widely in the United States, Omicron is increasing rapidly and we expect it to become the dominant strain in the United States, as it has in other countries, in the coming weeks,” Walensky said.

The U.S. is averaging close to 1,300 deaths from COVID-19 each day. New cases, deaths, and hospitalizations are higher now than in the previous winter — before vaccines were so widely available. The New York Times reported Friday that new infections in Connecticut and Maine have grown 150% in the past 2 weeks, and Ohio and Indiana are seeing hospitalization rates nearing the worst of last winter’s surge.

Dueling reports released this week gave cause for relief and concern about Omicron.

A study from South Africa released Tuesday shows lower hospitalizations during the first 3 weeks of the Omicron wave than during earlier waves from other variants. That’s the good news.

The concerning news is out of the United Kingdom, where Imperial College London reported Friday that the risk of re-infection with COVID-19 from Omicron is more than 5 times as high and that cases of Omicron-based COVID-19 are doubling every 2 days.

What’s more, the study “finds no evidence of Omicron having lower severity than Delta, judged by either the proportion of people testing positive who report symptoms, or by the proportion of cases seeking hospital care after infection. However, hospitalization data remains very limited at this time,” researchers said.

“We have no evidence that the virus itself is more mild,” Eric Topol, MD, executive vice president of Scripps Research and editor-in-chief of Medscape, WebMD’s sister site for health care professionals, told PBS NewsHour. “Until we have that, we have to assume that people who don’t have any protection are highly vulnerable to getting very ill.”

The White House COVID-19 team continues to urge parents and guardians to get their children vaccinated, especially in anticipation of a post-holiday spike. Walensky said the CDC’s vaccine advisory board met Thursday to continue the safety discussion about COVID-19 vaccinations in children.

So far, 20 million children under 17 and 5 million under 11 have received their shots.

“Looking specifically at vaccine safety data from over 50,000 children 5-11 years old, we found no evidence of serious safety concerns,” Walensky said.

Top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, MD, highlighted the importance of getting vaccinated and boosted to avoid serious disease from Delta and Omicron.

“We’re in a situation where we are now facing a very important Delta surge and we are looking over our shoulder at an oncoming Omicron surge,” he said. “The optimum protection is fully vaccinated plus a boost.”

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