The impact of the Omicron coronavirus variant on a largely unboosted US population going into the holiday season will create a “perfect storm” that will challenge health care systems from coast to coast, an expert said Monday.
Omicron is now the country’s most dominant strain less than three weeks after the first case was reported in the US. It accounted for more than 73% of new coronavirus cases in the week ending Saturday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated Monday.
“Even though more people who get it have milder illness, so many more people, overall, will get it that I think we are going to see a real challenge in our health care systems over the course of the next three to eight weeks,” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
“And what really is challenging is, on top of that, we can expect 10% to 30% of health care workers to get infected during that time.”
The variant will not discriminate by state lines, Osterholm told CNN on Monday.
“Instead of seeing the regional surges we were seeing with Delta — much of the West right now is very low level with Delta, parts of the South — I think Omicron is going to be a national viral blizzard,” he said.
The first confirmed Omicron-related death in the US was reported Monday. The Texas man in his 50s was unvaccinated, had underlying health conditions and previously had been infected with Covid-19, officials said.
Globally, Omicron cases are doubling every 1.5 to 3 days, the World Health Organization said.
Omicron’s far higher transmission levels compared to Delta would lead to a rise in US hospitalizations, Osterholm said.
Nearly 73% of Americans have received at least one vaccine dose, while 61.5% are fully vaccinated and 29.8% of those fully vaccinated have received a booster, according to CDC figures.
People should focus on getting optimal protection from the virus with three doses of vaccine, Osterholm said.
“Right now, we have a lot of people in this country who have bought some protection, but will it be enough to actually avoid serious illness with Omicron? We don’t know.”
It’s concerning that just 30% of vaccinated Americans had received a third dose, as it takes seven to 14 days for immunity to really pick up following a booster shot, Osterholm said.
“Well, that takes us into the New Year. Takes us right through the holiday season and right into the heart of the Omicron, what I call, ‘blizzard.’ So, it’s not looking good. It’s a real perfect storm, unfortunately, of events,” he said.
President Joe Biden on Tuesday is expected to announce additional steps in the fight against Covid-19, the White House said, but he won’t necessarily talk about more restrictions in the face of rising cases.
Biden will announce the purchase of a half-billion at-home rapid Covid-19 tests and a plan to distribute them free to Americans who request them through a website, an administration official said.
The 500 million new tests will be made available next month and will reach Americans through the mail, the official said.
Also among the President’s new initiatives is a plan to prepare 1,000 military service members to deploy to overburdened hospitals across the country in January and February, administration officials said. Those service members will include doctors, nurses, medics and other military medical personnel.
States prepare for Omicron
Some states are already overwhelmed, with Army medical personnel deploying to help fight Covid-19 in Indiana and Wisconsin.
Two 20-person teams will be deployed to assist civilian hospitals in the two states, US Army Northern Command announced Monday.
Meantime, northeast Ohio is in crisis, said Dr. Brook Watts, chief medical officer of community and public health at MetroHealth System in Cleveland.
“I think the health systems, together, said it best this weekend. When we took out a joint ad with all the hospitals in our region and it said one word, it said, ‘Help.’ It said help because our hospitals are filled with patients with Covid and we’re struggling,” she told CNN on Monday.
All Americans needed to play their part in the fight against Covid-19, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Monday.
“It has nothing to do with freedom; it has to do with protecting yourself and your family from a potentially deadly disease that has killed already over 800,000 Americans — but also relinquishing your societal responsibility to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem,” Fauci told the National Press Club Headliners Virtual Newsmaker event.
Unvaccinated people face a 10 times greater risk of testing positive and 20 times greater risk of dying from Covid-19 than fully vaccinated people who have also received a booster dose, according to data published recently by the CDC.
Compared to fully vaccinated people yet to receive a third dose, unvaccinated people face a five times greater risk of testing positive for Covid-19 and a 14 times greater risk of dying, according to the CDC assessment of data through October.
Cases have been surging in New York state, which saw a nearly threefold increase in one week, according to data Monday from Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration. And in New York City, officials are working to reinstate extra testing capacity, they said.
In Washington, DC — which has seen its highest daily coronavirus case count since the start of the pandemic — the indoor mask mandate was reinstated at 6 a.m. ET Tuesday and will stay in place through January 31, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced.
In Boston, proof of Covid-19 vaccination will be required for indoor dining, fitness venues, theaters and arenas, Mayor Michelle Wu announced. The mandate will apply to patrons and employees and will come online in phases: Single doses of vaccine will be required by January 15, with second doses required by February 15.
How parents can protect their children
The situation with Omicron is serious “but not dire” for children, Dr. Dimitri Christakis, editor in chief of JAMA Pediatrics, told CNN on Monday.
“From the data we have available so far, it still seems that Omicron doesn’t cause serious illness in children, and the good news is that children over 5 can get vaccinated, and vaccination does proffer a significant amount of protection,” he said.
But children aged under 5 cannot not yet be vaccinated, and as case numbers go up with the more transmissible variant, so will the numbers of children suffering serious illness, Christakis said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of Dr. Brook Watts, chief medical officer of community and public health at MetroHealth System in Cleveland.
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