As of January 7, the curve of U.S. daily cases continues to be flattened — along the wrong axis.
That nations like South Africa appeared to pass through the omicron surge relatively rapidly, and without experiencing a spike in COVID-19 related deaths, was taken by many as a signal that the U.S. could expect a fast rise and fall of new cases related to the new variant. How fast cases will fall is still to be determined, but they are certainly rising at a rate that vastly exceeds any previous wave of disease.
Part of what’s driving these huge numbers is the universal nature of the omicron spike. In past waves, COVID-19 has peaked in regional areas. The first wave hit hardest in the Northeast. The summer 2021 wave began in the the South before moving to other areas. The delta wave really broke out in the Midwest, with Missouri and Arkansas seeing an influx of cases before that variant erupted elsewhere.
But this is what community transmission level looks like in the US at this moment:
As of Friday, roughly 5% of the United States has COVID-19. That’s not 5% that has had COVID-19 at some point in the pandemic, that’s 5% of the nation that has COVID-19 right now. That’s over 16 million active cases. Granted, multiple states have been extremely lax about updating the number of active cases, so it’s difficult to determine just how accurate this value might be. But considering that there have been 6 million cases logged since Christmas, many patients have symptoms that linger on for months, and 18% of the nation has officially tested positive since the beginning of the pandemic, it doesn’t seem unreasonable. Just under 2% of Americans have officially tested positive in the last two weeks, and that doesn’t include unreported at home testing.
Hospitalization is up from Miami to Seattle, New York to San Diego, and at almost every point in between. With hospitalizations and deaths lagging behind, it’s unclear how this will translate into ICU beds and strained medical resources, but the prudent thing, after all this time, is certainly not to believe it will all blow over quickly.
Deaths may not be seeing a spike on scale with the increasing number of cases, but then, COVID-19 deaths in the United States were already high, with an average of over 1,200 a day. How much that number will increase as the omicron surge is processed remains to be seen. But there’s a good chance that many deaths from the omicron surge won’t be known until analysis of other excess deaths are processed.
Those concerned that the high number of new cases being reported comes from record levels of testing can be reassured (if that’s the correct word) by the fact that positivity levels are also at record highs. As of Friday, the 7-day average rate of positivity exceeded 25% in 25 states. That includes Florida, Texas, and New York. In most of these states, the rate of positive results is over 10 times higher than what the CDC recommends to adequately describe the level of infection. Nationwide, the 7-day average rate of positivity is 27.24%.
All of which means that, despite the incredibly high numbers, the real level of infection at the moment is being vastly undercounted. The situation at the moment is genuinely unprecedented. Which is why this table is so important at the moment.
An N95, or good quality KN94, mask is vital at this moment to prevent the spread of COVID-19, Because the U.S. cannot tolerate the level of hospitalizations that are likely if new cases continue to increase as they have over the last week. The good news about the charge above: It’s based on using an N95 mask that has not been professionally fitted, so this is something that you can do, inexpensively and repeatedly, in your personal life. The bad news: These values are from the spring. and do not represent the much more infectious omicron variant.
In any case: wear a mask. If you have a combination of a surgical mask and a cloth mask, wear that. If you have a KN94 mask, wear that. If you have an N95 mask, wear that. If all you have is a cloth mask, wear it, but know that your level of safety is extremely compromised. No matter what you are wearing, minimize your time indoors in public spaces.
Considering the ubiquity and contagiousness of omicron, it may seem that infection is inevitable. However, flatting the curve (in the horizontal sense) is essential if the health care system isn’t to be crushed under the burden of new cases. Protect yourself, your family, and your community. Wear a mask, minimize contact, order carryout, get curbside when possible, and don’t take that unnecessary trip.
How dangerous is omicron?
This is the big question that everyone keeps trying to answer. Unsatisfying as it is, the real answer is simply: we don’t know yet. That’s because so much of the damage done by COVID-19 is related to long-term effects, and omicron is different enough from past variants that what those effects might be still isn’t known. Still, as NPR reports, there are some values that are good news for individuals … even if they’re not great news for the health care system.
One study found that the risk of having to go to the ER with an omicron infection was about 5%, down from about 15% for those infected by delta. However, 5% is still quite a high number, and even that two-thirds drop isn’t enough to relieve the overload brought on by rising cases.
In terms of ending up in the ICU, omicron seems to be about half as dangerous as delta, with 0.4% being sent to the ICU at the end of December as opposed to 0.8% in the middle of the delta surge. The odds of ending up on a ventilator were cut by 75% when compared to earlier variants.
That all sounds somewhat reassuring. Except that still makes omicron many times more dangerous than the flu, even when a patient is getting good treatment. As hospitals flood with new patients, the chances of getting good treatment swiftly decline—100% of patients who need ventilation die when ventilation isn’t available.
Even for those not ending up in the hospital, omicron still offers potential weeks of misery, as well as unknown lingering symptoms. Milder does not equal mild.
500 million home tests are (almost) on the way
Cox Media Group reports that the White House and USPS are “finalizing plans to deliver 500 million COVID-19 test kits to households nationwide.”
A plan to deliver masks to homes was scotched by the Trump White House, but this time it seems that the effort to deliver tests is going to come through, with a website allowing anyone to request free tests expected by the middle of the month.
Though home tests have continued to be available from online retailers, they’ve been sold out in many local stores. With existing testing locations buckling under the demand caused by the omicron spike, the need for home tests has been high, but many are concerned that the tests won’t be available for another week, they’ll be getting to people just as the omicron surge is essentially over.
Let’s hope they’re right.
1 million tests destroyed in Florida after DeSantis allowed them to expire
While the rest of the nation is scrambling for COVID-19 tests, it seems that Florida was sitting on a stockpile. “Was” being the operative word.
That’s because, in a press conference on Thursday, Gov. Ron DeSantis admitted that as many as a million tests, which had expiration dates around the end of the year, were never distributed. So they were ordered destroyed.
All of the destroyed tests were apparently still valid in mid-December, even as stores in Florida were unable to meet the need and lines for testing stretched for blocks. But DeSantis never made the tests available.
The news of the tests’ destruction might never have become known, but it was revealed by State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only statewide Democratic official in Florida and a candidate to replace DeSantis in the fall.
Omicron resulting in “croup” among children
Tests have indicated that the omicron variant is much less likely to invade lung tissue than delta or past variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. However, that doesn’t mean it still can’t cause a cough, particularly in children.
As NBC News reports, pediatricians are seeing many children who are experiencing the peculiar barking cough that frightens so many parents, and which is widely known as “croup.” This form of cough is caused by inflammation of the airways. Since those airways are smaller in children, it makes it easier for inflammation to all but cut them off, leaving kids struggling to draw in and exhale a breath without falling into the sharp and scary croup pattern.
A number of viruses can cause the croup. One of them appears to be SARS-CoV-2, and specifically the omicron variant.
Though the sound of children struggling with croup can be terrifying, parents are urged to not be too concerned by the squeaks and barks related to the symptom. “Croup is a bread and butter pediatric diagnosis,” said New Orleans pediatrician Dr. Mark Kline. “Infectious croup is one of the first diseases you learn about when you’re an intern in pediatrics.”
Just as with adults, the important thing for kids right now—especially those too young to be vaccinated—is to avoid situations where infection is likely.