The highly transmissible Omicron variant of COVID-19 has now been detected in nearly 20 states—but the biggest coronavirus-related problem in the U.S. is still the same variant that wreaked havoc this past summer.
The U.S. is adding more than 1,100 deaths to its COVID death toll every day, and on Monday the CDC confirmed nearly 200,000 new cases of COVID-19, according to the agency’s most recent data. Cases are up 30 percent over the past two weeks, nearly 60,000 people are currently hospitalized, and hospitals in some parts of the highly vaccinated Northeast are running at or over capacity.
The Omicron variant, which was discovered by South African doctors and researchers in late November and led to the U.S. instituting a travel ban against several African nations, has now been found in at least 19 U.S. states. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the top official in Texas’ most populous county, said Monday that a fully vaccinated woman in her 40s with no recent travel history tested positive for the new variant.
The variant was also detected in eight of Houston’s 39 wastewater treatment plants from samples taken in late November, indicating the variant was likely in the U.S. before its discovery by South African researchers.
Cases in South Africa, where just over a quarter of the population is fully vaccinated, have grown exponentially over the past few weeks, and the number of confirmed cases has surged in the U.K. and Denmark, two of the world leaders in genome sequencing and countries where more than 70 percent of the populations are fully vaccinated.
All of this has experts worried that the new variant could evade immune defenses from vaccines and prior infections more easily than previous variants have, potentially creating a huge setback for efforts to end the pandemic. But so far, early evidence has indicated that the new variant may either be less virulent than Delta and other strains of the virus, or respond well to previous immunity.
Doctors at Steve Biko Tshwane District and Hospital Complex in Pretoria, South Africa, said in a report this weekend that so far they’ve seen far fewer people in the intensive care for COVID than at the same stage of the Delta wave, and fewer patients required oxygen.
In fact, out of the nine people with COVID pneumonia at the hospital as of Dec. 2, only one fully vaccinated person was on supplemental oxygen. But the treatment for that person was due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), not COVID, the report said.
During previous stages of the pandemic, “you could hear the oxygen whooshing out of the wall sockets, you could hear the ventilators beeping,” one infectious disease doctor at the hospital told the Financial Times. “But now the vast majority of patients are like any other ward.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House chief medical adviser and the face of the U.S. COVID response in both the Trump and Biden administrations, said in a Sunday interview with CNN that “the signals are a bit encouraging regarding the severity” of Omicron.
“Thus far—though it’s too early to really make any definitive statements about it—it does not look like there’s a great degree of severity to it,” Fauci said. “But we have really got to be careful before we make any determinations that it is less severe or it really doesn’t cause any severe illness comparable to Delta.”
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