‘Viral blizzard’ of omicron is coming, warn experts

The omicron variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is taking over the United States at shocking speed. The delta variant, which had been dominant in the US since shortly after its arrival, was several times more transmissible than previous variants, but has been almost totally displaced in just two weeks.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show the omicron variant accounting for 12% of new infections on December 11, one week after it arrived in the US. One week later, omicron accounts for 73% of new infections

(Editor’s note, Dec 28, 2021: Official reporting has been revised to note that the 73% estimate was the high end of a range of probable levels of omicron prevalence. New estimates find omicron expanding very rapidly, but only accounting for 58.6% of new US infections as of Christmas Day. See further detail below.)

As of Monday, December 20, omicron accounted for more than 90% of new infections in 5 out of 10 regions. Those regions include New York and New Jersey, Chicago and the Upper Midwest, the Southeast, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and New Mexico, and the Pacific Northwest. 

Public health experts and epidemiologists are predicting a “viral blizzard” of omicron infections during the holidays, as people gather indoors. One reason is the rapid spread. Another is the variant’s apparent ability to circumvent acquired immunity. This high level of transmissibility is believed to be the result of 32 mutations to the spike protein which helps the virus infect human cells. The sheer number of mutations make this variant significantly different. 

Omicron has proven effective at generating “breakthrough infections”—infecting people who are fully vaccinated. It has also infected people who have received a booster dose of vaccine, but anecdotal reports and early scientific evidence indicate booster doses significantly increase the body’s defenses against severe disease from omicron.

Even as anti-vaccine fringe groups continue to spread disinformation, the US is now seeing a record number of people seeking booster doses of COVID-19 vaccines. That is a good sign; it means tens of millions of people are getting the message that the vaccines do give real protection. 

If the omicron spread can be slowed, mass death may be averted, but the US is experiencing socio-political conditions ripe for resilience failure. Due to the high level of public misperception of the facts surrounding COVID-19, the vaccines, and other known effective preventive measures (such as wearing masks), tens of millions of people will likely have zero or near zero protection against this most contagious new variant. Misinformation has separated them from the public health benefits that most Americans see in COVID safety measures. 

That misinformation has extremely high costs—both in dollar terms (estimated at $50 million to $300 million per day) and in lives lost

  • One study found that the combined effect of slow response, inconsistent preventive interventions, misinformation, and economic disruptions would result in $82 trillion in lost economic value over the next 5 years, globally. 
  • Johns Hopkins University’s COVID data service reports 5,367,126 people have died from COVID-19 globally, with 809,329 deaths in the US alone.
  • COVID-19 has killed 1 in every 100 Americans over the age of 65 who were alive when the pandemic started.

Omicron’s rapid spread risks collapsing health systems and forcing hospitals to ration care. As NPR reports today: 

This news comes at a time when many US. hospitals are depleted by an exodus of health care workers who have quit or taken other jobs and are already buckling under the strain of caring for COVID-19 patients across the Northeast, Midwest and Southwest.

The only real hope we have of avoiding a massive increase in the number of lives lost is if as many people as possible are fully vaccinated, boosted, and observing responsible social distancing and masking when in public indoor spaces or in crowds. We have to shut down the virus or it will shut us down again. Even vaccinated, we have to do our part to prevent asymptomatic spread. 

And globally, we have to recognize that we really are all in this together. New dominant variants have so far emerged on at least four continents. They have done so in rich countries and poor countries. We must work to protect everyone, so everyone can play a role in our own protection.

Resilience is a baseline imperative. We need the most vulnerable, immune-compromised people, the elderly, front-line workers, and our healthcare facilities, all to have the benefit of the best possible strategy, enacted in the optimal way, to get through this without grave new losses.

Wherever you are: Get fully vaccinated, get a booster dose, wear a mask, avoid indoor crowding, and let’s keep each other safe.

UPDATE: CDC revises down previous estimates of omicron prevalence in US

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have issued new reporting on the prevalence of the omicron variant of COVID in the United States. The CDC finds omicron now accounts for 58.6% of new COVID cases in the US.

This comes with a downward revision of infection levels during the week ending December 18. The new analysis suggests omicron accounted for 23% of new cases that week. This also means it will take time to fully understand how dangerous omicron might be, since the delta variant was still dominant that week and was only eclipsed by omicron the week before Christmas.

The new estimates also show that during the week leading up to Christmas, the omicron variant accounted for a majority of cases in all but one region of the US.

For more information about COVID trends and risks and their effects on baseline resilience, check out the 2021 Reinventing Prosperity report.

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