Health officials sounded the alarm Tuesday over the fast spread of the omicron coronavirus, which has now been detected in 77 countries worldwide and 33 states in the US—and is expanding quickly.
Only two weeks have passed since health officials detected the first omicron case in the US, and the variant is already accounting for 3 percent of cases overall in the country—which is still swept up in a powerful wave of the delta variant. In New York and New Jersey, omicron is accounting for 13 percent of cases, according to Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Surge upon surge
Currently, the US is seeing around 120,000 new COVID cases per day, a 49 percent increase over two weeks ago. The country is averaging 66,500 hospitalizations a day, which is a 22 percent increase. For now, nearly all of the cases and hospitalizations are due to delta, but that will likely change quickly with omicron.
“It is more transmissible, and we’re seeing that in other countries as well—that it’s rapidly becoming the more predominate strain,” Dr. Walensky said on NBC’s Today Tuesday morning. Scientists are still working out just how much more transmissible omicron is compared with delta, Walensky cautioned, “but what we’re seeing in some of these other countries is doubling times of about every two days or so—so really rapid increase in the amount of omicron that’s out there.”
Some places, such as Denmark, Norway, and parts of the United Kingdom, are seeing near vertical rises in cases as omicron spreads, prompting officials to send dire warnings about towering spikes in cases. Such concern was echoed in a press briefing with the World Health Organization later this morning.
“Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in opening remarks. “We’re concerned that people are dismissing Omicron as mild. Surely we have learned by now that we underestimate this virus at our peril. Even if omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems.”
Preliminary data released Tuesday from South Africa indicated that adults with omicron cases were 29 percent less likely to be hospitalized than if they had been infected with a previous variant. The early finding was based on analyses from Discovery Health, a large health insurer in South Africa, and included data on 211,000 COVID-19 test results over three weeks. Of those, 78,000 were omicron cases. Anecdotal evidence from clinics and hospital admissions suggest that omicron patients have milder disease, with reports of shorter recovery times and fewer people requiring supplemental oxygen.
But officials in the US and the WHO were quick to point out that the data is still very limited, and it’s not yet possible to draw firm conclusions about how omicron will play out elsewhere. South Africa’s population is younger than that of the US, and nearly 60 percent of people in the preliminary study were under the age of 40. Younger people tend to have milder cases, which can skew the findings. Also, about 26 percent of the population is vaccinated, and many people have pre-existing immunity from previous infection with the delta variant. It’s unclear how omicron will behave in places with higher or lower levels of vaccination and past infection.
Despite those uncertainties, the South African data did generally agree with data from elsewhere suggesting that two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine offered less protection against the omicron variant than previous variants. The data indicated that protection from infection fell from 80 percent to 33 percent with omicron. Protection from severe disease remained strong, however, falling from 93 percent to 70 percent.
The study also found that children were 51 percent less likely to test positive for COVID-19 than adults amid omicron’s rise. However, the new variant appeared to carry a 20 percent higher risk of children being hospitalized for complications due to COVID-19. Researchers noted, however, that anecdotal reports from hospitals indicate that most COVID-19 diagnoses in hospitalized children occur in children who were admitted for reasons unrelated to COVID and do not experience COVID-19 symptoms but test positive during routine screening.
Do it all
While officials at the CDC and WHO continue to caution that we’ll need more data to get a clear picture of omicron’s transmissibility and disease severity, they are certain that we already know how to effectively fight omicron. Just as with delta, they recommend using all of the proven health measures together.
“I need to be very clear,” Dr. Tedros said. “Vaccines alone will not get any country out of this crisis… It’s not vaccines instead of masks. It’s not vaccines instead of distancing. It’s not vaccines instead of ventilation or hand hygiene. Do it all. Do it consistently. Do it well.”