US hits 800,000 COVID-19 deaths as Omicron now in 36 states

White flag COVID death memorial in front of White House

This week America reached another grim milestone in the pandemic: 800,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, about 400,000 of them during the past year, when vaccines have been available.

And though the highest daily death tolls occurred almost 1 year ago, in January 2021, death counts have risen in recent weeks to an average of 1,100 fatalities per day, nearly triple the daily averages seen in June and July, before the Delta (B1617.2) variant became the dominant strain.

Omicron gaining foothold

According to Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director, Delta is still the dominant strain in the United States, but the new Omicron (B.1.1.529) variant is quickly gaining a foothold in parts of the country.

Today during a White House press briefing, Walensky said 3% of all national cases are caused by Omicron, but that percentage jumps to 13% in parts of New York and New Jersey. The strain has been detected in at least 36 states.

"We expect to see the proportion to grow in the coming weeks," said Walensky. "Early data suggest Omicron is more transmissible than Delta, with doubling time of 2 days."

But Anthony Fauci, MD, the top medical advisor to the White House, said booster doses were effective in raising protective antibody levels against Omicron.

"At this point there is no need for a variant-specific booster," Fauci said. Instead, all Americans who are eligible for primary vaccination and booster doses should get them as soon as possible.

Cases, hospitalizations rise

The 7-day average for daily COVID-19 cases is 117,900 cases per day, and the 7-day average of hospitalizations is 7,800 per day, an increase of 8% over prior week, Walensky said.

US officials reported 113,749 cases yesterday and 1,629 deaths. In total, the nation has tracked 50,310,998 cases, including 801,453 deaths.

Yesterday in a briefing with governors and health officials, the CDC warned that a tidal wave of infections, caused by both Omicron and Delta, could hit the United States as soon as next month, the New York Times reports. The winter surge would happen at the same time as flu activity increases.

They also presented a scenario in which a small wave of Omicron cases occurs in the spring.

Omicron has also been linked to a new and growing outbreak in Ithaca, New York. Cornell University reported 903 COVID-19 cases among students from Dec 7 through 13, and a high percentage are Omicron, CNN reports. The outbreak led school officials to shut down its campus.

Finally, Omicron has begun to influence the nation's mood: Thirty-six percent of Americans say they are worried or extremely worried about themselves or a family member being infected with the novel coronavirus, according to the latest Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll. That's up from 25% in October.

Despite the worry, respondents report taking fewer precautions than they did in the spring and are planning a return to normal activities. Roughly half of those polled say they currently stay away from large groups, wear a face mask, and avoid nonessential travel, down from 70% in February.

Other US developments

  • The NFL, NBA, and NHL are seeing a sharp uptick in COVID-19 cases among players, CBS News reported today.

  • President Joe Biden said yesterday that his administration has ordered enough of Pfizer's COVID-19 antiviral pills to treat 10 million Americans, Axios reports. The medication, called Paxlovid, has not yet been authorized for emergency use by the FDA.

  • Breakthrough COVID-19 hospitalizations most often affect older adults and people with chronic health conditions, according to the latest Kaiser Family Foundation data.

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