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Cases of the highly transmissible Omicron variant continue to skyrocket, but hospitalizations and deaths remain much lower by comparison ― another sign that Omicron is less deadly than previous strains, White House officials said on Wednesday.
“The rapid increase of cases we’re seeing across the country is, in large part, a reflection of the exceptionally transmissible Omicron variant,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, said at a White House briefing. “While our cases have substantially increased from last week, hospitalizations and deaths remain comparatively low right now.”
“This could be due to the fact that hospitalizations tend to lag behind cases by about 2 weeks, but may also be due to early indications we’ve seen from other countries like South Africa and the United Kingdom of milder disease from Omicron, especially among the vaccinated and boosted,” she continued.
The 7-day daily average of COVID-19 infections is 240,400 ― an increase of 60% since last week. But hospital admissions have only increased by 14%, at 9,000 per day. Deaths are averaging 1,100 per day, a decrease of about 7%.
Early data from other countries aligns with this trend, said Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and medical adviser to President Joe Biden. According to a study from one South African hospital published Tuesday, patient deaths from Omicron averaged 4.5%, compared to 21.3% from previous waves. About 45% of patients with Omicron required supplemental oxygen, while 99% of patients from previous COVID-19 waves needed breathing assistance. The average length of stay for Omicron patients was 4 days ― less than half the average for other strains.
Fauci noted that while the Omicron variant seems to replicate faster in the bronchial tubes, this occurs much more slowly in the lungs, which could account for the milder disease.
Both Walensky and Fauci stressed that those with vaccine protection are far less likely to become infected with Omicron and are less likely to be hospitalized and die should they be infected.
“The risk of severe disease from any circulating variant, including Omicron, is much, much higher for the unvaccinated,” Fauci said.
Walensky also addressed the controversial updated guidance reducing isolation time for infected health care workers, along with looser guidelines for people exposed to COVID-19 and those infected without symptoms.
“Let me make clear that we are standing on the shoulders of 2 years of science, 2 years of understanding transmissibility, and a lot of information that we have gleaned from the wild type virus, as well as the Alpha and Delta variants, and more that we continue to learn every single day about Omicron,” she said. “Studies have demonstrated that when people are infected with SARS-CoV-2, people are most infectious the 1 to 2 days before symptoms develop, and the 2 to 3 days after. After 5 days, the risk of ongoing transmission substantially decreases.”
Briefing, White House, Dec. 29, 2021.