The number of Americans in hospitals with COVID-19 over the weekend exceeded the peak seen last winter, highlighting the speed with which the highly transmissible omicron variant is spreading.
There were 142,388 people in U.S. hospitals on Sunday, the New York Times reported, citing government data. That is more than the 142,315 that were counted on Jan. 14 of 2021.
The seven-day average for hospitalizations stood at 135,559 on Monday, according to a New York Times tracker, up 83% from two weeks ago. However, that is still well below the rate at which new cases are trending at 737,415 a day, up 203% from two weeks ago.
COVID-19 deaths are averaging 1,653 a day, up 36% from two weeks ago. Deaths lag hospitalizations and new cases, and data are still showing that omicron is less lethal than earlier variants.
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Testifying before a Senate panel on Tuesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci was asked by Democrat Tim Kaine to quantify deaths among vaccinated vs. unvaccinated COVID patients, responded that a way to answer the question is to compare vaccinated and unvaccinated hospital inpatients.
“If you look at vaccinated vs. unvaccinated, there’s about a 10 times greater chance that you would be infected if you were unvaccinated, about a 17 times greater chance that you would be hospitalized if you were unvaccinated and a 20 times [higher] likelihood that you would be dead if you were unvaccinated,” said Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the top coronavirus adviser to the Biden White House.
Hospitals in some areas are filling fast, and U.S. companies are reporting staffing issues due to illness with omicron in increasing numbers.
Case numbers are likely undercounted because many people are testing at home, and their positive diagnoses are not being recorded. But the sharp spike shows the virus is spreading fast, creating many breakthrough cases in people who have been vaccinated and even boosted, and has not yet peaked.
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The head of the World Health Organization for Europe warned on Tuesday that more than half of Europeans could be infected with omicron in the next two months, if current infection rates continue. Regional director Hans Kluge warned that the omicron variant represents a “new west-to-east tidal wave” sweeping the European region, AFP reported.
The agency’s Europe region includes 53 countries, and 50 of those have confirmed omicron cases, he said. And a full 26 of those have reported that more than 1% of their populations are contracting COVID-19 every week as of Jan. 10, with the overall region counting more than 7 million new cases in the first week of the new year alone.
The risk now is that hospitals will be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of cases and that this will cause preventable fatalities.
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Kluge stressed that, for now, all the data show that vaccines continue to provide strong protection against serious illness and death, making it more important than ever that unvaccinated people get their shots.
“We still have a virus that’s evolving quite quickly and posing quite new challenges. So we’re certainly not at the point of being able to call it endemic,” WHO senior emergencies officer Catherine Smallwood told reporters.
Other COVID-19 news to know:
• Starting Saturday, private health insurers will be required to cover up to eight home COVID-19 tests per month for people on their plans, the Associated Press reported. Americans will be able to either purchase home testing kits for free under their insurance or submit receipts for the tests for reimbursement, up to the monthly per-person limit.
• Health authorities around the U.S. are increasingly taking the extraordinary step of allowing nurses and other workers infected with the coronavirus to stay on the job if they have mild symptoms or none at all, the AP reported separately. The move is a reaction to the severe hospital staffing shortages and crushing caseloads that the omicron variant is causing.
• Pfizer Inc. PFE, +0.80% is working on a hybrid vaccine that will cover coronavirus variants including omicron, with plans to seek regulatory clearance by March if needed, said the pharmaceutical giant’s chief executive officer, Albert Bourla. Bourla made the comments at the annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare conference on Monday afternoon, where he discussed the company’s plans and challenges surrounding the highly transmissible omicron variant. An edited transcript of the comments were made available on Pfizer’s website.
• A third Chinese city has locked down residents because of a COVID-19 outbreak, raising the number confined to their homes in China to about 20 million people, the AP reported. It wasn’t clear how long the lockdown of Anyang, a city that’s home to 5.5 million, would last as a notice said it was being done to facilitate mass testing but did not indicate whether it would end when the testing is completed. Another 13 million people are locked down in the city of Xi’an and 1.1 million in Yuzhou.
• BioNTech SE BNTX, -6.17% said it has developed a new system with InstaDeep Ltd. that uses a mix of modeling and artificial intelligence to predict high-risk new SARS-CoV-2 variants, based on publicly available virus sequences. The system examines the “fitness” and immune escape qualities of newly identified variants to determine their risk.
• Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent, said on Twitter late Tuesday that he planned to introduce a bill on Wednesday to send top-quality N95 face masks to all U.S. households to “save lives and reduce health care costs.”
Here’s what the numbers say
The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 climbed to 311.1 million Tuesday, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University. The death toll climbed above 5.49 million.
The U.S. leads the world with 61.7 million cases and 840,316 fatalities.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that about 208 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 62.6% of the total population.
Some 75.8 million have received a booster, equal to 36.5% of the fully vaccinated.