What the arrival of Omicron means for the US

Pressure mounts on Biden as multiple states report successive days of record cases

Joe Biden with his Chief Medical Adviser Anthony Fauci
Joe Biden with his Chief Medical Adviser Anthony Fauci
(Image credit: Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

The arrival of Omicron threatens to trigger record numbers of coronavirus cases and hospitalisations across the US, the country’s leading infectious disease expert has warned.

Dr Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to Joe Biden, said during an appearance on CNN that he expects to see “significant stress in some regions of the country on the hospital system, particularly in those areas where you have a low level of vaccination”.

With Christmas travel expected to further increase the spread of the Covid-19 variant over the coming days, Omicron is “going to take over”, Fauci predicted. “It is going to be a tough few weeks to months as we get deeper into the winter,” he added.

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‘Raging through the world’

Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, issued his warning following a week that has seen Covid-19 infections spiking in many parts of the US, with New York State and the District of Columbia reporting successive days of record cases.

Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker both announced yesterday that they had tested positive, as the spread of Omicron increased “pressure on the White House to step up its own Covid response”, said the Financial Times (FT).

In another televised appearance by Fauci yesterday, on NBC’s Meet the Press, the health boss said the new strain was “raging through the world” and warned that “our hospitals, if things look like they’re looking now, are going to be very stressed”.

Urging the public to get their booster jab before Christmas, he added: “The difference between a vaccinated and boosted person who has an infection, and someone who has an infection who has never been vaccinated – it’s a major difference with regard to the risk of severity.”

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, told NBC’s Face the Nation that “the big question” for experts was whether the “million cases” expected to follow the Omicron spike would “be sick enough to need health care and especially hospitalisation”.

“We’re just holding our breath to see how severe this will be,” he said.

According to the FT, “access to vaccines as well as rapid tests has been difficult in some cities, jeopardising the response to the new wave of cases”.

Fauci acknowledged that access to tests was currently “spotty”. Within a “week or two or three”, the goal was to “get anywhere from 200m to 500m tests available per month, which means that there will be a lot of tests”, he said during his appearance on CNN.

Biden is due to give a speech tomorrow outlining the White House’s plan for containing the highly infectious new strain. Speaking to NBC, Fauci hinted at what the president might announce, telling the broadcaster that the focus will be on “upscaling some of the things that we’ve been talking about”.

The plans include “getting people boosted who are vaccinated, getting children vaccinated, making testing more available, having surge teams out because we know we’re going to need them because there will be an increased demand on hospitalisation, strengthening the safety of travel and providing vaccines for the rest of the world”, he explained.

Grim outlook

In “one of the most comprehensive forecasts to date”, experts at the Covid-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin last week “chalked out 18 different scenarios” for the US following the arrival of Omicron, Vox reported.

The study, which was not peer-reviewed, “shows that the US is facing yet another dangerous variant while the conditions for spreading it – the holiday season – are at their most favourable”, the site said.

The most optimistic forecast suggested that the arrival of the new strain would result in 50% fewer deaths between December and May compared with the same period last year, with the decrease mainly down to vaccine rollouts. The most pessimistic projection, however, suggests there could be 20% more deaths than during what Vox described as the “grim period last winter and spring”.

Experts have warned that the spike in infections in the UK could be “a sign of what’s likely just around the corner for parts of the US”, said Axios. The site noted that findings from the UK Health Security Agency suggest that “if you're unvaccinated and haven't been infected, you're definitely not in the clear with Omicron”.

Latest data released by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that almost 73% of the US population has received at least one Covid vaccination, while almost 30% have had a booster shot.

The president’s scheduled speech tomorrow, “coming just before Christmas and New Year’s Day, underlines Biden’s struggle to contain the pandemic nearly a year into office”, said The Washington Post. Even before the arrival of Omicron, “the administration has at times faced criticism for what some have described as mixed signals”.

That pressure seems unlikely to abate any time soon. Some parts of the US “are already in the beginning phases of what these other parts of the world already went through” as Omicron began ripping through their populations, said Axios.

New York City Councillor Mark Levine told the site that the city has “almost caught up with London”, adding: “Omicron spread earlier there, but that means we may see even higher case numbers.

“There’s just no doubt that we’re headed for probably a tough six weeks ahead.”

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