While the omicron variant has driven U.S. Covid-19 case counts to record highs, hospitalizations and deaths have so far remained "comparatively low." However, public health experts caution that hospitalizations tend to lag diagnoses of new Covid-19 cases—and hospitals are still bracing for a potential future surge.
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Current case, hospitalization, and death counts
Nationwide daily new coronavirus cases reached a record seven-day average of more than 265,000 as of Tuesday, surpassing the previous record of about 252,000 average daily cases reached in January, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky on Wednesday said despite the record number of cases, hospital admissions and deaths remain "comparatively low." She pointed to a seven-day daily hospitalization average of 9,000, which represented a 14% increase from the previous week, and a seven-day daily death average of about 1,100, which represented a 7% decrease.
Walensky said the current hospitalization and death numbers could be due "to the fact that hospitalizations tend to lag behind cases by about two weeks, but may also be due to early indications that we've seen from other countries like South Africa and United Kingdom of milder disease from omicron, especially among the vaccinated and the boosted."
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that "all indications point to a lesser severity of omicron versus delta," but added that "it is difficult to determine what degree of lessened severity is due to pre-existing immunity or the intrinsically lower virulence of omicron ... or a combination of both."
He added that "the pattern and disparity between cases and hospitalization strongly suggest that there will be a lower hospitalization-to-case ratio when the situation becomes more clear." However, he cautioned against becoming complacent, "since our hospital system could still be stressed in certain areas of the country."
Hospitals are already overwhelmed, short-staffed ahead of a potential omicron surge
Although preliminary data suggests that omicron may cause milder cases than the delta variant, experts believe the variant's transmissibility could still result in extraordinarily high case counts that ultimately lead to significant numbers of hospitalizations and deaths.
According to CNN medical analyst Jonathan Reiner, the United States could "see half a million cases a day—easy—sometime over the next week to 10 days."
Most likely, "January is going to be a really, really hard month. And people should just brace themselves for a month [in which] lots of people are going to get infected," said Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.
"A higher peak can further overwhelm the system for other people as well," said Bruce Lee, a professor of health policy and management at the City University of New York School of Public Health. He noted that hospitals overwhelmed with Covid-19 cases could struggle to treat those with other diseases or injuries, such as those with heart attacks, cancer, or injuries from a car accident.
In addition to managing the existing high levels of Covid-19 cases and other hospital admissions, more than 25% of hospitals in 13 states are currently experiencing a shortage of nurses, doctors, and other medical staff—with eight states saying they anticipate the situation to worsen, Forbes reports. Hospitalizations currently remain lower than previous pandemic peaks, but admissions are steadily increasing in many states, including Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Virginia.
President Joe Biden last week announced a plan to deploy six federal emergency response teams with more than 100 medical professionals to six states. In addition, 1,000 military medical professionals, including doctors, nurses, and paramedics, will be deployed to assist overwhelmed hospitals throughout January and February. (Rattner, CNBC, 12/29; Weiland, New York Times, 12/29; Doherty, Axios, 12/29; Yan/Vera, CNN, 12/29; Ponciano, Forbes, 12/25)