Omicron could spark 'viral blizzard' in coming weeks, top epidemiologist says

COVID-19 cases are surging across the U.S. ahead of Christmas, sparking the cancellation of sporting events and a growing list of hospitals postponing nonessential surgeries — both a reminder of last year's holiday surge and a sign that the next several weeks will determine the pandemic's trajectory for the rest of the winter months. 

Nationwide, the daily average for new cases was more than 133,000 on Dec. 18, a 21 percent jump over the last two weeks, according to data compiled by The New York Times. 

Health officials have warned the omicron variant — which appears to cause less severe illness, though is more transmissible — could exacerbate the ongoing delta-fueled surge and overwhelm the healthcare system. 

"I think we're really just about to experience a viral blizzard," Michael Osterholm, PhD, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told CNN  during a Dec. 17 interview.  "I think in the next three to eight weeks, we're going to see millions of Americans are going to be infected with this virus, and that will be overlaid on top of delta, and we're not yet sure exactly how that's going to work out." 

New York — where omicron accounts for at least 13 percent of new cases — for two consecutive days set a record for the daily number of new cases reported. Health officials reported more than 21,000 new cases on Dec.17 and 21,908 on Dec. 18. Three Midwestern states and Vermont also set COVID-19 records last week, including Ohio, which reported nearly 12,000 new cases Dec. 16. 

While early data suggests omicron is tied to less severe illness than the original strain, health officials have warned against underestimating the virus. The outgoing National Institutes of Health director, Francis Collins, MD, PhD, offered a grim projection during a Dec. 19 interview with NPR

"Even if it has somewhat lower risk of severity, we could be having a million cases a day if we're not really attentive to all of those mitigation strategies," Dr. Collins said. 

Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said areas with low vaccination coverage will likely be especially hard hit across the coming weeks. 

"We are going to see significant stress in some regions of the country on the hospital system, particularly in those areas where you have a low level of vaccination, which is one of the reasons why we continue to stress the importance of getting those unvaccinated people vaccinated," he told CNN Dec. 19, adding that in some regions of the U.S., omicron accounts for 50 percent of new infections, "which means it's going to take over." 

"This virus is extraordinary. It has a doubling time of anywhere from two to three days," Dr. Fauci said. 

The daily average for U.S. COVID-19 hospitalizations was more than 69,000 as of Dec. 19, marking a 16 percent rise across the last two weeks; and while omicron may be associated with lower disease severity, a significant surge would inevitably lead to more hospitalizations and deaths, health officials say. Connecticut, Washington, D.C., and Rhode Island have seen the highest percent increase in hospitalization rates over the last two weeks. 

As the holidays and planned celebrations near, Dr. Fauci emphasized the importance of booster doses in combating the surge. He urged against holiday gatherings and travel among people who have not been fully vaccinated or received their boosters. Given a rise in breakthrough cases, he also suggested people take a rapid test before attending a gathering. 

"If you do these things … I do believe that you can feel quite comfortable with a family setting, the dinners and the gatherings that you have around the holiday season," Dr. Fauci told ABC News Dec. 19. "Nothing is 100 percent risk-free, but I think if you do the things that I just mentioned, you'd actually mitigate that risk enough to feel comfortable about being able to enjoy the holiday." 

Moderna said Dec. 20 that a booster dose of its vaccine increased antibody levels against omicron 37-fold. Laboratory findings from Pfizer also indicate its booster offers significant protection against the strain. 

CDC data showed 61.4 percent of the nation's population had been fully vaccinated as of Dec. 19. Nearly 30 percent of the fully vaccinated population had received their booster dose.


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