A wave of Omicron cases may be peaking in the northeastern US, but the number of Covid-19 patients is at an all-time high and climbing, crushing hospitals whose staff have been emptied by the coronavirus.
Public health officials warn that while the number of Americans infected each day remains dangerously high, there is no guarantee that the population will develop enough natural immunity to hasten the day when the virus becomes a manageable part of everyday life.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, was interviewed Monday at the online conference World Economic Forum if this could be the year it happens. “I hope it is,” he said, “but it would only be if we don’t get another variant that evades the immune response.”
Dr Fauci said the course of the pandemic was still impossible to trace. “The answer is: we don’t know,” he said.
The United States is averaging more than 790,000 daily new cases, a tally that includes an artificially low number on Monday, when many states did not release new data due to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday. Deaths now exceed 1,900 a day, up 54% over the past two weeks.
Even before the holiday weekend, daily cases had peaked in New York and other northeastern states. According to a New York Times database, cases in the region peaked on January 10 and 11.
Although scientists believe Omicron may cause less severe disease than previous variants, the number of cases has created a tsunami of patients seeking care. Hospitals are under strain, struggling to manage staffing shortages that force tough decisions about what care to prioritize.
The average number of Americans hospitalized with the coronavirus is 157,000, a 54% increase over two weeks. And the number could continue to rise for some time: experts say data on deaths and hospitalizations tend to lag the number of pure cases by about two weeks. The hospitalization figures include people who tested positive for the virus after being admitted for conditions unrelated to Covid.
Omicron’s surge slams understaffed hospitals where many workers are sick with Covid-19 and others who quit under the pressure of the pandemic have not been replaced.
Intensive care units, as of the week ending Jan. 13, averaged 82% full, according to a New York Times database. In Oklahoma City on Monday, four hospitals released a declaration saying they had no intensive care beds available.
After last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling that approved the Biden administration’s vaccination mandate for healthcare workers, hospitals were bracing for possible resistance and more staffing shortages.
And while it’s too soon to know how this record wave will shape the pandemic, it’s bound to have an impact, said William Hanage, epidemiologist at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
“In due course, immunity from Omicron (or boosters, or both) will wane and breakthrough infections will be possible,” he wrote in a text message. “But we expect them to be milder. This is not ‘herd immunity’, as outbreaks will be possible. However, their consequences will be much less severe.