Speed Reads

Counting the infections

Why Omicron has made soaring COVID-19 case numbers less relevant

The number of new COVID-19 cases reported in the U.S. has tripled over the past two weeks, to a record-smashing average of 480,000 new infections a day, as the super-transmissible Omicron variant continues spreading around the country. The undulating infection numbers "have been one of the most closely watched barometers during the outbreak," The Associated Press reports. But in this Omicron wave, "the value of the daily case count is being called into question as never before."

With the unusually large share of asymptomatic Omicron infections or mild cases, "it is much more relevant to focus on the hospitalizations as opposed to the total number of cases," Dr. Anthony Fauci told ABC News on Sunday. "Hospitalizations are where the rubber meets the road," U.C. Irvine public health professor Andrew Noymer told AP. "It's a more objective measure," and "if I had to choose one metric, I would choose the hospitalization data."

Hospital admissions have risen to an average of 14,800 a day, up 63 percent from last week but lower than the peak of 16,500 a year ago, and fewer of the new patients are getting seriously ill, AP notes. "Deaths have been stable over the past two weeks at an average of about 1,200 per day, well below the all-time high of 3,400 last January." 

Case numbers always had their drawbacks — they mostly count the number of lab tests that come back positive, not at-home results, and this recent uptick in cases is probably tied to the surge of people rushing to get tested before the holidays. Hospital admission numbers have their flaws, too.

But as the pandemic enters its third year, we should be "shifting our focus, especially in an era of vaccination, to really focus on preventing illness, disability, and death, and therefore counting those," Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr at Columbia's ICAP global heath center tells AP.

"Though it's still early for firm predictions, the shift in hospital patterns fits with emerging data that Omicron may be a variant with inherently milder effects than those that have come before," The New York Times reports. "But the lower proportion of severe cases is also happening because, compared with previous variants, Omicron is infecting more people who have some prior immunity, whether through prior infection or vaccination."

And that means vaccination numbers are another important metric to watch now, as Financial Times data journalist John Burn-Murdoch shows.