The Omicron variant has pushed the U.S. into dangerous new territory with the COVID pandemic. All across the country, people are struggling to get tested, state hospitals are having to utilize the National Guard for help, and hundreds of thousands of people are being newly infected every day. The newest COVID variant is estimated to already account for more than 95 percent of all cases in the U.S., despite being discovered less than two months ago, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Some experts have predicted that Omicron might peak as fast as it has surged, but the near future is still looking grim.
New research has shown that the Omicron variant might be somewhat less severe, but unfortunately, it’s significantly more transmissible than any of the previous COVID variants. Bob Wachter, MD, chair of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), is warning that this is bad news when it comes to what’s next for Omicron. “The new Omicron math: somewhat milder x massively more infectious = overwhelmed hospitals and lots of deaths,” Wachter tweeted on Jan. 6.
As Wachter explained in an interview with NPR on Jan. 4, COVID cases are rising to new heights in the U.S. right now, reflecting just how infectious the Omicron variant is. According to data from Johns Hopkins University, more than one million new COVID cases were reported on Jan. 3 alone, which is a record high for the country.
Hospitalizations rates are rising, too. Per Reuters, the number of COVID patients being hospitalized has increased 45 percent in the past week and climbed to more than 111,000—which is a number that hasn’t been seen since Jan. 2021. The average case of Omicron has around a 60 percent lower chance of landing you in the hospital than the average case of Delta, Wachter said. But that’s not enough to stop hospitals from filling up.
“The reason is, even if the average case is less likely to land you in the hospital, if there are twice or three or five times as many cases, then you will have more people land in the hospital,” he told the news outlet. “So the short-term risk, and we’re seeing it all over the country, is the hospitals will get filled with patients with Omicron. A fair number of doctors and nurses will [also] be out sick with Omicron.”
Wachter added, “And so we have a pretty miserable month, even though the average patient has a lower chance of ending up in the hospital than he or she would have had if they had a case of Delta, particularly if they’re vaccinated.”
The UCSF chair is hardly the only expert who has warned about rising hospitalizations and potentially deaths despite the variant being milder overall.
During a press briefing on Jan. 5, top White House COVID adviser Anthony Fauci, MD, confirmed that “multiple sources of now-preliminary data indicate a decrease of severity with Omicron.” According to Fauci, recent animal studies have indicated that variant does not attack the lungs as severely as Delta or other forms of the virus.
“It was shown that the virus of Omicron proliferates very well in the upper airway and bronchi, but actually very poorly in the lungs,” he explained, noting that this doesn’t definitively prove that Omicron is milder, but is consistent with the idea that it is spreading quickly but infecting the lungs less.
At the same time, the infectious disease expert warned that hospitals could still face significant strain from the unprecedented number of new COVID cases, even with Omicron’s reduced severity. “We should not be complacent,” Fauci warned. “[Omicron] could still stress our hospital system because a certain proportion of a large volume of cases, no matter what, are going to be severe.”