The US Covid cases have reached their peak in the pandemic as two highly infectious varieties circulate across the country and health officials urge Americans to get vaccinated and armed against the virus.
According to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, new cases a day across the country hit the record seven-day average of more than 265,000 on Tuesday, beating the previous high of around 252,000 average daily cases on January 11, 2021.
The new peak of the pandemic comes as the Delta and Omicron variants spread at the same time. The previously dominant delta variant already led to higher case numbers in the USA this fall, before the advent of Omicron, which contributed to an almost vertical increase in new cases every day.
About 75,000 Americans are hospitalized with Covid-19, and the country reports more than 1,500 deaths every day. While both numbers are increasing, they’re lower than the last daily case record almost a year ago, before Covid vaccinations were widespread. Hospital admissions at the time exceeded 137,000, according to a seven-day average from Health Department data, and Johns Hopkins data shows the average death toll was more than 3,200 per day.
Approximately 62% of the US population are fully vaccinated with two doses of the Pfizer or Modern Shots or a dose of the Johnson & Johnson Vaccine from Tuesday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
People wait on the 14th
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US health officials have warned that the risk for those who were not vaccinated remains highest and are urging Americans to get a booster dose to better protect themselves against Omicron.
“It has over 50 mutations and because of those mutations it may not be enough to just be vaccinated with two doses,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky CNBC’s “The News with Shepard Smith” last week. “And so we really need empowerment for people to increase their protection, especially against serious illness and death with Omicron.”
While the global scientific community is still collecting data on the new variant, which was first discovered in southern Africa in late November, there was some encouraging early news. Real-world studies from South Africa and the UK suggest that people infected with Omicron develop milder disease compared to Delta, and Pfizer and Moderna have each said that a third dose of their mRNA-Covid vaccines would do one Appears to Provide Significant Protection Against Omicron Two-shot therapy has been found to be less effective against infection.
A health care professional conducts a COVID-19 PCR test at a vacant testing site in Farragut Square on December 28, 2021 in Washington, DC.
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A lighter, more communicable disease could still have a devastating impact on health systems if the absolute number of cases gets high enough, experts say. Because even if a smaller proportion of the infected comes to the hospital, this smaller proportion of a very large number could be enough to burden the hospitals and affect the care of Covid and non-Covid patients.
“A higher peak value can also overwhelm the system for other people,” said Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, professor of health policy and management at the City University of New York School of Public Health, said that with fuller hospitals it would make it harder to treat patients with heart attacks or cancer, or those who have been involved in a car accident, for example .
The White House will deploy 1,000 military medical personnel to assist hospitals facing a surge in patients infected with Covid this winter, President Joe Biden said announced last week. The government will also buy 500 million home tests that Americans can order online for free, with delivery starting in January.
Americans struggle to get tested during the busy holiday season, when many navigate through crowded airports to visit family. There is a shortage of home test kits as national and independent pharmacies struggle to keep them in stock. The queues to get tested on-site at clinics in cities like New York can sometimes last for hours.
A number of states are reporting record averages in the daily number of new cases. New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Virginia, Illinois, Maryland and Hawaii all hit all-time highs on Tuesday, a CNBC analysis of Johns Hopkins data shows. Ohio was just ahead of record levels, and Connecticut, Delaware and the District of Columbia all hit records in December before falling back below their new highs.
Hospital admissions are increasing in almost all of these states. The seven-day average of 325 patients in hospital beds with Covid in DC is a 70% increase from the previous week and nearing a record, while Hawaii, New Jersey, New York and Virginia all have weekly increases of 20% or more to have.
DC’s lead epidemiologist Anil Mangla said that while the outbreaks have been similar to those seen throughout the pandemic – schools, restaurants and bars, venues and people’s homes – the surge is much higher than expected. The district reports about 2,000 average new daily cases, according to Johns Hopkins data, about ten times the number two weeks ago and more than any other state on a population-adjusted basis.
“It’s very obvious that Omicron is here,” said Mangla. “Is there Delta? Absolutely. But because of the significant increase, we are definitely convinced Omicron is here.”
Mangla pointed to the declining percentage of DC Covid cases hospitalized, which has dropped from more than 5% at the beginning of the month to 2.6%, as a potentially hopeful sign that Omicron is causing a milder disease. However, infections in DC have only increased in the past few weeks.
Both Delta and Omicron are detected in tests sequenced at Ohio State University, said Dr. Carlos Malvestutto, an infectious disease doctor at the University of Columbus’ Wexner Medical Center. Although most of the patients currently in the hospital are likely to have Delta, Omicron is now seen in most of the new Covid test results.
Most hospital patients are not vaccinated, according to Malvestutto, a trend that he also expects at omicron. And even if the variant causes a milder illness, he still believes the state will beat its high hospitalization rate for the pandemic set in December 2020 when more than 5,600 patients were hospitalized with Covid. That number stands at nearly 5,200 on Tuesday.
“Much of the data we looked at tells us that while virulence appears to be significantly lower, it will still lead to an increase in hospital admissions due to the very high transferability in absolute terms,” he said. “If you are vaccinated and vaccinated, you will be much better.”
– CNBCs Spencer Kimball Reporting contributed.