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December 14, 2021

1 million Covid-19 deaths: America approaches a momentous toll

Daily Briefing

    As Covid-19 cases continue to rise throughout the United States, health experts are warning that cases are likely to continue to increase due to the omicron variant, likely leading the United States to hit 1 million Covid-19 deaths soon.

    The omicron variant: The 'good,' 'bad,' and 'ugly' scenarios

    'A large wave is coming'

    On Monday, the United States surpassed a total of 50 million Covid-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, according to the New York Times, and experts say that number is likely to continue rising quickly.

    A recent analysis from Discovery Health, the largest private insurer in South Africa, found that two shots of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine are just 33% effective at preventing symptomatic Covid-19 from the omicron variant. However, the vaccine is also 70% effective at preventing severe Covid-19 requiring hospitalization, and the researchers found that overall risk of hospitalization due to the omicron variant was 29% lower than South Africa's first wave of Covid-19 cases in 2020.

    But, given the transmissibility of omicron and its ability to evade some vaccine protection, experts say cases are likely to surge. "Everything points to a large wave. A large wave is coming," a senior Biden administration official told Axios.

    "It will be fast. It won't be as severe, but regrettably, there will be plenty of hospitalizations," they added.

    Eric Topol from Scripps Research said omicron's "exponential rise could take us to levels of even one million cases per day in the United States, which previously would have been considered an unthinkable projection."

    US could reach 1M Covid-19 deaths 'sooner rather than later'

    So far, more than 796,000 people have died from Covid-19, and around 1,200 Americans are dying from the disease every day, according to USA Today. As a result, Robert Glatter, an emergency medicine physician at Lenox Hill Hospital, said it's likely the country will hit 1 million Covid-19 deaths relatively soon.

    "At the current trajectory we may reach it much sooner than expected, with cases, hospitalizations, and deaths significantly increasing in the past two months," Glatter said. "The potential for a catastrophic surge of deaths looms large this winter," Glatter added. "The outlook … looks bleak at best."

    And according to Melissa Nolan, an assistant professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of South Carolina Arnold School of Public Health, there could be worse variants than omicron in the future.

    "The variant is circulating in vaccinated persons and could adapt in the future to 'outsmart' the vaccine's antigen cocktail," Nolan said. That could make the "omicron variant in February 2022 more infectious in vaccinated persons than today," she added.

    Viruses are designed to "outsmart our immune system and vaccines," Nolan added, which means "[t]here will be more variants in the future."

    And unless a large portion of the world gets vaccinated, "we are looking at several more years of pain and suffering," Glatter said. "Not to mention the economic effects imposed by travel bans as well as supply chain disruptions. It's in everyone's best interest to get vaccinated and boosted."

    'The remarkable feat of science'

    Atul Nakhasi, a primary care physician at Martin Luther King Jr. Outpatient Center, said Covid-19 is just another disease that medicine has to fight.

    Pointing to past medical advances, Nakhasi said, "That is the remarkable feat of science, and I have no doubt science will and can do the same now for the pandemic. Our goal is to turn deadly Covid into the Covid cold. I think we can do it."

    Already a number of treatments for Covid-19 are available, and more could be on the way soon, USA Today reports. For example, a federal advisory panel recommended FDA authorize molnupiravir, the first antiviral oral pill to treat Covid-19.

    "Just as with the flu, vaccines prevent sickness, hospitalization, death, and transmission," Nakhasi said. "Yet we also have Tamiflu for treatment, too. Similarly, it is great news to have effective pill treatments potentially soon available."

    According to Nolan, new treatments for unvaccinated, high-risk patients are being developed every day, all of which will likely lower the overall mortality risk of Covid-19 and lower the risk of more dangerous variants developing.

    Ogbonnaya Omenka, an assistant professor and director of diversity at the Butler University College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, said the United States should move forward with "cautious optimism," adding that an approach of health practices like hand washing and covering faces remains the best way to fight Covid-19.

    "It's understandable, the eagerness to identify a sort of 'golden bullet' for the disease," Omenka said. "However, the drugs are aimed at mitigating the severity of the disease, not preventing or curing it." (Astor, New York Times, 12/13; Owens, Axios, 12/14; Bacon, USA Today, 12/14)

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