Story at a glance
- Many parts of the U.S. have been experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations through the month of November.
- The World Health Organization announced a new variant of concern, omicron, right after Thanksgiving.
- Now, many states and regions of the country could be especially vulnerable to even higher surges of COVID-19 due to the omicron variant.
As the world grapples with a new COVID-19 variant, one infectious diseases expert is predicting how the omicron variant could bring on a new surge in infections around the country.
Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota, spoke on his podcast about all things omicron.
In an episode titled, “The Emergence of Omicron,” Osterholm described the threat omicron presents in the U.S. as many parts of the country reported record numbers of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations throughout November.
That’s troubling, as the World Health Organization (WHO) declared on Nov. 26 that omicron was officially being treated as a variant of concern. Though the new variant is still being studied, Osterholm told Changing America that one thing is certain: Omicron seems to have a demonstrably higher transmission rate than previous strains of COVID-19.
Osterholm also cited a troubling example in Norway, where almost 120 people are now infected with the omicron variant after attending a company holiday party.
That could seriously impact the U.S., as Osterholm discussed on his podcast, since the start of November the national level of new COVID-19 cases went from around 70,000 a day to 95,000 heading into Thanksgiving. Hospitalizations have also been increasing, going from 46,000 a day in early November to nearly 53,000 a day just days before Thanksgiving.
Those numbers could be exacerbated even further as people begin to pick up traveling again, with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announcing it screened more than 26 million passengers from Nov. 22 to Dec. 2.
Osterholm said that all of this data suggests the U.S. is still battling the delta variant and is in a vulnerable position to face yet another COVID-19 variant.
“Delta is still here in full force and we have to understand we’re not done with this pandemic, despite the fact there are many people around the world, and particularly here in America, that are done with the pandemic,” said Osterholm.
For example, Osterholm mentioned the state of Vermont, which has experienced a record number of new COVID-19 cases. According to the Vermont Department of Health, the state reported its highest number of positive COVID-19 cases in November since the start of the pandemic. That’s despite Vermont having 84 percent of its population vaccinated, one of the highest vaccination rates in the country.
Rhode Island is another concerning example, with Osterholm noting it’s also experiencing an alarming rate of COVID-19 cases. The Rhode Island Department of Health is reporting that the number of new cases and hospitalizations have been steadily rising through the month of November.
Osterholm said that states in the upper Midwest and Northeast are also raising a red flag with their high rates of COVID-19-related hospitalizations and new cases. Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan are all considered virus hotspots on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) COVID Data Tracker. Michigan is particularly bad, with the CDC reporting it had almost 59,000 new COVID-19 cases in the past seven days alone, with about 61 percent of its population vaccinated.
“Until the virus is done with us, the pandemic will not be over,” said Osterholm.
As scientists around the world rush to learn more about the omicron variant, such as how it behaves and how it fares against the current roster of COVID-19 vaccines, Osterholm emphasized that the pandemic is nowhere near over. The infectious diseases expert said for now the best protection people have against the virus is getting vaccinated, which is the same advice the WHO offered when announcing the new variant of concern.
As the effectiveness of vaccines against omicron remains uncertain, WHO recommended that vaccination efforts be “intensified” for all eligible populations. The continued use of masks, social distancing and frequent hand washing was also recommended as variants continue to emerge throughout the pandemic.
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