Barely a month after South African researchers discovered the most highly transmissible variant of COVID-19 yet, Omicron is wreaking havoc on the United States. The country has blown past last winter’s peak in new cases, there are mass staffing shortages in healthcare and other essential services, and public health experts are warning that—without mitigation measures, at least—it may be impossible to avoid being infected.
On Wednesday, the post-Christmas surge began to come into full focus as the United States clocked nearly half a million positive COVID results in a single day. For comparison, during last winter’s deadly wave, which preceded the widespread distribution of vaccines, daily cases topped out at 308,000.
New York City is seeing almost 300 percent more cases than it saw during last winter’s peak, with 1 in 5 people in Manhattan testing positive, a record high. This week Florida saw the largest single-day increase in new cases since the summer peak of the Delta variant, according to the Miami Herald.
It’s highly likely that Wednesday’s record-breaking case count is an undercount. There’s been a mad rush for at-home COVID rapid tests in recent weeks, but as the New York Times reported Thursday, many at-home results are not reported to local health departments. And the Food and Drug Administration said earlier this week that some rapid antigen tests might not detect Omicron because they’re “less sensitive.”
At the same time, evidence from other countries whose waves have progressed further indicates that—relative to the number of cases—this wave is sending fewer people to the hospital, and that fewer who have been admitted require intensive care. And Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House press briefing Thursday that while the U.S. is seeing record cases, “hospitalizations and deaths remain comparatively low right now.”
Hospitalizations typically lag behind cases by about two weeks. In Washington D.C., the hardest hit area in the country right now, cases are nearly four times as high as they were during last winter’s peak, according to the New York Times. Hospitalization rates in D.C. have already exceeded last winter’s peak. Despite its increase in new cases, New York City is currently at 75 percent of the number of hospitalizations it saw last year, according to the Times.
Dr. April Kapu, an associate nursing officer at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville and the president of the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, told VICE News Thursday that—from what she’s seeing at her hospital and hearing from colleagues around the country—many people are coming to the hospital with COVID symptoms, but those symptoms are generally milder.
Kapu said that “lots of patients” are testing positive incidentally after coming to the emergency room with other issues, and that the few people hospitalized with Omicron are unvaccinated, whether by choice or because they’re not old enough to get the shot. Kapu said that the majority of people hospitalized with COVID right now are people who contracted the Delta variant.
The New York Fire Department put out a public service announcement Wednesday reminding New Yorkers that ambulances do not test for COVID-19 or transport people to hospitals for tests, and asked people not to “only call 911 during a real emergency,” i.e. if they show severe symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain, and low oxygen levels.
The biggest issue for hospitals, Kapu says, is staffing.
“The reason we are having to cut back on scheduled surgeries and usual patient volume is because we have so many staff out who are COVID positive,” Kapu said in a text message. “It’s worse than ever before from a staffing crisis standpoint.”
It’s not just healthcare. In New York City, where cases are nearly triple the peak of last winter and hospitalizations are on the rise, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) suspended three subway lines on Thursday morning due to an enormous staffing shortage.
“Over the next three to four weeks, we are going to see the number of cases in this country rise so dramatically that we're gonna have a hard time keeping everyday life operating,” Dr. Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota, told MSNBC Thursday.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance earlier this week saying people who test positive could return to work after five days if they’re asymptomatic. The guidance was both mocked by the general public and criticized heavily by some public health experts,
The CDC guidance does not explicitly recommend that asymptomatic people produce a negative test before going back to work, which Walensky maintained was not due to the testing shortage Wednesday. But Kapu said that Vanderbilt is requiring a negative test from people who aren’t asymptomatic before they return to work, or if they can’t produce a test result, a longer quarantine.
Dr. Wolfgang Preiser, a South African virologist who has been tracking Omicron since it was discovered, warned German outlet Deutsche Welle (DW) Thursday that for most people, contracting COVID-19 due to Omicron isn’t a matter of if, but when.
“It's not a question of a common cold virus yet, it may be moving in that direction and that would be good news,” Preiser said. “But the bad news is that with this variant it will be next to impossible to escape infection.”
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