Omicron surge is ‘unlike anything we’ve ever seen,’ expert says, as US sees record high Covid-19 cases

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As of Wednesday, the country is averaging 300,886 new Covid-19 cases each day, a new pandemic high, data from Johns Hopkins University shows.

The number of lives the virus is claiming also jumped this week by about 18%, for an average of 1,546 deaths each day, according to the data.

In the nation’s capital, Dr. James Phillips described strained staff attending to patients who are mostly mildly symptomatic and trying to get tested in emergency departments.

“It’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen even at the peak of the prior surges of Covid,” Phillips told CNN’s Jim Acosta Wednesday. “What we’re experiencing right now is an absolute overwhelming of the emergency departments” in Washington, he said.

Phillips, who is chief of disaster medicine at George Washington University Hospital, noted that DC-area hospitals are struggling with staffing due to Omicron.

“While many of us were able to stay safe from getting the Delta virus and the previous variants that have come our way, Omicron is affecting the staff at our hospitals in an unprecedented way,” Phillips said.

In Louisiana, Covid-19 hospitalizations have tripled in the past two weeks, as it records a record number of cases, according to the state.

Dr. Catherine O’Neal, chief medical officer at Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge, told CNN Wednesday that patients at her hospital are looking to get tested but are also suffering from symptoms.

“We’re seeing an increase in admissions that is startling,” she said.

Many of the patients O’Neal sees are unvaccinated. They often have more severe illness with pneumonia and need to be intubated or need high-flow oxygen. Another group of patients, who haven’t had a booster or who are partially vaccinated, come in more with a kind of flu-like illness, but they’re “fragile,” she said.

“They’re older, they have heart failure, they have COPD, and they can’t handle Covid even when they’re vaccinated,” O’Neal said. “Luckily, most of those people are turning around after a couple days and going home, which is a good thing.”

Hospitalizations are also peaking in Maryland, where 2,046 people were fighting Covid-19 in a hospital as of Tuesday. The state reported 10,873 new Covid-19 cases Wednesday, the highest number of new cases in a 24-hour period, according to state data.

Nationwide, nearly 78% of ICU beds are in use and 22% of those are occupied by Covid-19 patients, according to data from the US Health and Human Services Department.
Nearly 62% of the total US population is fully vaccinated and 33% of those have received a booster shot, data from the CDC shows.
Cars wait in long lines at a drive-up Covid-19 testing center at Tropical Park in Miami on December 29, 2021.

New Year’s celebrations should be small this year, experts say

With the spike in Covid-19 cases, experts are urging Americans to practice caution as they celebrate the new year.

Dr. Jonathan Reiner, professor of medicine and surgery at George Washington University, said Wednesday that people should skip big indoor New Year’s Eve parties this year.

December 27 coronavirus pandemic and Omicron variant news

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus “is extraordinarily contagious, and if you are in a crowd now, and certainly if you’re unvaccinated, you are at great risk of contracting this virus,” Reiner told CNN’s Jake Tapper.

He noted a small celebration at a friend’s house should be OK if everyone is vaccinated and boosted and tested negative before the party. Big outdoor parties are less risky unless they’re crowded.

Reiner’s remarks echo the advice of Dr. Anthony Fauci, who suggested earlier this week that people should avoid large New Year’s Eve gatherings where they don’t know the vaccination status of guests. Fauci also said small gatherings of vaccinated family or close friends are safe.

“When you are talking about a New Year’s Eve party, where you have 30, 40, 50 people celebrating, you do not know the status of the vaccination — I would recommend strongly, stay away from that this year. There will be other years to do that, but not this year,” Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Fox News Monday.

CDC guidance faces criticism

On Monday the CDC shortened the recommended time those with Covid-19 should isolate from 10 days to five, if asymptomatic, and the agency is now defending itself from criticism of that announcement.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Wednesday that new research, combined with some people’s reluctance to isolate for 10 days if infected, spurred some of the latest guidance.

CDC changes to quarantine, isolation advice took local health officials by surprise

“We know that the most amount of transmission occurs in those one to two days before you develop symptoms (to) those two to three days after you develop symptoms,” she said.

“And if you map that out, those five days account for somewhere between 85% to 90% of all transmission that occurs.”

So for those who test positive but have no symptoms or dwindling symptoms at Day 5, “we shortened the time to encourage people to do the right thing,” Walensky told CBS on Wednesday.

“We don’t want them out and about when they are maximally infectious.”

Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told CNN he thinks the CDC is being too harshly criticized for changing the guidelines.

CDC shortens recommended Covid-19 isolation and quarantine time

“Everything we’re going to do right now is imperfect. Just accept that right now,” Osterholm said Wednesday.

“We don’t know a lot of the things we wish we’d know, but what we do know and what is emerging here is that this country is going to be in the soup in just the next few weeks with so many cases and so many locations, that we’re going to see critical infrastructure as well as health care challenged,” Osterholm added.

Osterholm predicts that with the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, there may not be enough people who are well enough to keep hospitals, grocery stores and gas stations working. The change in CDC guidelines is not just about helping the economy, he said: “It was to play to the very safety of our everyday lives.”

CNN’s Jen Christensen and Virginia Langmaid contributed to this report.

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