The highly-contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19 has ripped through all corners of the U.S. over the past month and a half, and now finally appears to have peaked, with cases down nearly 10 percent over the past two weeks, according to CDC data. But we’re not out of the woods yet.
More than 2,000 people are dying every day from COVID, according to the CDC. Over 156,000 people are currently hospitalized, stretching the country’s healthcare infrastructure even further and delaying important medical procedures for people who don’t have COVID. Some monoclonal antibody treatments that were effective in treating previous variants aren’t working against Omicron.
More than 660,000 people are testing positive daily, which is more than double last winter’s peak, according to CDC data. And given the massive gap between unprecedented demand for and limited supply of COVID tests and the number of rapid tests available, it’s likely we’ll never know precisely how many people got COVID during the Omicron surge.
At the same time, there are signs the surge may be receding almost as quickly as it overwhelmed much of the U.S. and Europe: less than two weeks ago, more than 800,000 people were testing positive every day, as the rate of positive cases skyrocketed following the holidays. (Omicron was the variant responsible for more than 99.5 percent of all cases in the U.S. as of January 15, according to the CDC.)
While cases may be declining, however, hospitalizations and deaths are not. Though there’s a mounting body of evidence suggesting Omicron is less virulent than the Delta variant, which drove the summer and fall waves, more people are hospitalized now than at any other point in the pandemic.
And COVID-related deaths, which tend to trail hospitalization and case numbers by several weeks, are also increasing, with 2,083 deaths added to the toll daily on average over the last two weeks, according to the New York Times, a 25 percent increase over two weeks ago.
On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration removed two of the three emergency monoclonal antibody treatments—which had been effective against earlier variants but have proven to have minimal or no effect against Omicron—from its list of approved treatments for COVID. According to the FDA, the treatments it removed, which are made by Eli Lilly and Regeneron, “are highly unlikely to be active against the omicron variant.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has made the treatments the focal point of his administration’s COVID strategy and actively sought to stop schools, local governments, and even private businesses from requiring masks and vaccines, slammed the “haphazard” decision in a Tuesday statement.
“Without a shred of clinical data to support this action, Biden has forced trained medical professionals to choose between treating their patients or breaking the law,” DeSantis said. “This indefensible edict takes treatment out of the hands of medical professionals and will cost some Americans their lives.”
The Florida Department of Health announced Monday that monoclonal antibody treatment sites were closing due to the FDA’s decision, adding that the state “disagrees with the decision that blocks access to any available treatments in the absence of clinical evidence.” The studies on the efficacy of monoclonal antibody treatments—which have found that some treatments are effective—have largely been conducted in labs. One study published in the journal Nature Medicine last week found that the Eli Lilly and Regeneron treatments “completely lost neutralizing ability” against Omicron.
The existing COVID vaccines have largely held up against severe illness and death from Omicron, particularly for those who are boosted, but have proven remarkably less effective at preventing initial infection than they did for other variants. On Tuesday, Pfizer announced that it had begun a clinical study testing the efficacy of a new Omicron-specific COVID vaccine.
The impact of Omicron has also been seen outside of the nation’s hospitals, as high rates of infection among essential workers, such as teachers and school staff, have temporarily shut down schools in many parts of the country.
In New Mexico, after a flood of cases among school staff earlier this month, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced last week that members of the National Guard would be deployed to New Mexico schools to substitute teach. They could begin arriving in schools as early as next week, according to Albuquerque news station KOAT.
“We really just need to be whatever it is that our state needs us to be,” New Mexico National Guard Brig. Gen. Miguel Aguilar told the station.
Over the weekend, Grisham’s office told CNN that the governor had signed up to become a substitute teacher herself, and expected to be assigned to an elementary school this week.
At least 100 National Guardsmen and state employees have signed up to become substitute teachers, Grisham told CNN Saturday, and the point of the initiative was not to replace teachers but to “keep schools open and to support educators, parents, and students through the worst of Omicron.”
The state had more than 1,000 teaching vacancies in public schools when school started this year, according to New Mexico State University researchers. Educators rallied at the state Capitol in Santa Fe over the weekend, calling on lawmakers to solve the ongoing teacher shortage by increasing pay and benefits.
“It’s time that every educator in New Mexico has the resources needed to provide a quality public education to each and every student,” National Education Association president Becky Pringle, who leads the nation’s largest teachers’ union, said Sunday. “New Mexico educators deserve better. And better means higher wages, affordable health care and dignity.”
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