The House passed a sweeping spending bill last night that omitted billions in Covid-19 aid. Biden administration officials had said the funds were urgently needed to maintain supplies of essential treatments and support further vaccine development, but Republicans disagreed. Some public health experts have expressed dismay that the pandemic relief money was cut, given the likelihood that new variants will continue to emerge. After all, viruses keep evolving until they run out of hosts to infect, and there are billions of people around the world—and millions in the US—who haven’t been vaccinated against Covid-19.
Cases continue to decline in the US, and a number of top voices in public health recently put out a report mapping when and how the country can transition out of the pandemic. Their recommendations include vaccinating at least 85 percent of the US population by 2023, improving indoor air quality in public buildings, and allocating additional funding for Covid-19 response and to prepare for future pandemics.
Welcome to Friday’s Health 202, where today we have a special spotlight on the pandemic two years in.
🚨 The federal government is about to be funded. The Senate sent the long-term spending bill to President Biden’s desk last night after months of intense negotiations.
Two years since the WHO declared a pandemic, what health-care system changes are here to stay?
Exactly two years ago, the World Health Organizationdeclared the coronavirus a pandemic and much of American life began grinding to a halt.
That’s when the health-care system, which has never been known for its quickness, sped up. The industry was forced to adapt, delivering virtual care and services outside of hospitals on the fly. Yet, the years-long pandemic has exposed decades-old cracks in the system, and galvanized efforts to fix them.
Today, as coronavirus cases plummet and President Biden says Americans can begin resuming their normal lives, we explore how the pandemic could fundamentally alter the health-care system for good. What changes are here to stay — and what barriers are standing in the way?
A telehealth boom
What happened: Telehealth services skyrocketed as doctors’ offices limited in-person visits amid the pandemic. The official declaration of a public health emergency eased long-standing restrictions on these virtual services, vastly expanding Medicare coverage.
But will it stick? Some of these changes go away whenever the Biden administration decides not to renew the public health emergency (PHE). The government funding bill passed yesterday extends key services roughly five months after the PHE ends, such as letting those on Medicare access telehealth services even if they live outside a rural area.
But some lobbyists and lawmakers are pushing hard to make such changes permanent. Though the issue is bipartisan and popular, it could be challenging to pass unless the measures are attached to a must-pass piece of legislation.
“Even just talking to colleagues, I used to have to spend three or four minutes while they were trying desperately not to stare at their phone and explain to them what telehealth was … remote patient monitoring, originating sites, and all this wonky stuff,”said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), a longtime proponent of telehealth.
“Now I can go up to them and say, ‘So telehealth is great, right?’ And they say, ‘yes, it is.’ ”
A new spotlight on in-home care
What happened: The infectious virus tore through nursing homes, where often fragile residents share rooms and depend on caregivers for daily tasks. Ultimately, nearly 152,000 residents died from covid-19.
The devastation has sparked a rethinking of where older adults live and how they get the services they need — particularly inside their own homes.
“That is clearly what people prefer,” said Gail Wilensky, an economist at Project HOPE who directed the Medicare and Medicaid programs under President George H.W. Bush. “The challenge is whether or not it’s economically feasible to have that happen.”
More money, please: Finding in-home care — and paying for it — is still a struggle for many Americans. Meanwhile, many states have lengthy waitlists for such services under Medicaid.
Experts say an infusion of federal funds is needed to give seniors and those with disabilities more options for care outside of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities.
For instance, Biden’s massive social spending bill included tens of billions of dollars for such services. But the effort has languished on Capitol Hill, making it unclear when and whether additional investments will come.
A reckoning on racial disparities
What happened: Hispanic, Black, and American Indian and Alaska Native people are about twice as likely to die from covid-19 than White people. That’s according to age-adjusted data from a recent Kaiser Family Foundation report.
In short, the coronavirus exposed the glaring inequities in the health-care system.
“The first thing to deal with any problem is awareness,” said Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association. “Nobody can say that they’re not aware of it anymore, that it doesn’t exist.”
But will change come? Health experts say they hope the country has reached a tipping point in the last two years. And yet, any real systemic change will likely take time. But, Benjamin said, it can start with increasing the number of practitioners from diverse communities, making office practices more welcoming and understanding biases.
We need to, as a matter of course, ask ourselves who’s advantaged and who’s disadvantaged” when crafting new initiatives, like drive-through testing sites, Benjamin said. “And then how do we create systems so that the people that are disadvantaged have the same opportunity.”
More than 90% of the U.S. population lives in an area with a “low” or “medium” risk of COVID-19, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced yesterday. Last week, the CDC changed the way it assesses county-level COVID-19 risk, using data on hospitalizations and health care capacity in addition to case counts. The CDC now recommends universal indoor masking only for counties that are at “high” risk under this system—which means that the vast majority of Americans are not currently advised to wear masks inside.
Welcome to Wednesday’s Overnight Health Care, where we’re following the latest moves on policy and news affecting your health. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.
Masks come to the Super Bowl: Fans attending the big game next month will be given KN95 masks.
Despite omicron being less severe on average, the sheer number of cases has driven deaths past the peak from last year’s delta surge.
The average number of U.S. COVID-19 deaths this week surpassed the height of the delta surge earlier this fall and is at its highest point since last winter, when the nation was coming out of the peak winter surge.
The seven-day average of deaths hit 2,166 on Monday, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Average daily deaths in mid-September before the omicron variant was discovered peaked at around 1,900.
While increasing evidence shows omicron may be less likely to cause death or serious illness than delta, the sheer infectiousness and the speed at which it spreads has overwhelmed hospitals, primarily with people who have not been vaccinated.
The U.S. saw the highest numbers of deaths in the pandemic just over a year ago, before vaccines were widely available, when the daily average reached 3,400. The last time the U.S. topped 2,000 deaths was last February, as the country was slowly coming down from the January peak.
Caution urged: Infections are falling in states that were hardest hit earlier, as well as broadly across the nation. Hospitalizations are also falling, but deaths are a lagging indicator and are still increasing. CDC Director Rochelle Walsenky said deaths have increased about 21 percent over the past week.
The fact that the omicron variant tends to cause less severe disease on average also helped avoid an even greater crisis that would have occurred if it was as severe as the delta variant.
Even as daily new COVID cases set all-time records and hospitals fill up, epidemiologists have arrived at a perhaps surprising consensus. Yes, the latest Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus is bad. But it could have been a lot worse.
Even as cases have surged, deaths haven’t—at least not to the same degree. Omicron is highly transmissible but generally not as severe as some older variants—“lineages” is the scientific term.
We got lucky. But that luck might not hold. Many of the same epidemiologists who have breathed a sigh of relief over Omicron’s relatively low death rate are anticipating that the next lineage might be much worse.
Fretting over a possible future lineage that combines Omicron’s extreme transmissibility with the severity of, say, the previous Delta lineage, experts are beginning to embrace a new public health strategy that’s getting an early test run in Israel: a four-shot regimen of messenger-RNA vaccine.
“I think this will be the strategy going forward,” Edwin Michael, an epidemiologist at the Center for Global Health Infectious Disease Research at the University of South Florida, told The Daily Beast.
Omicron raised alarms in health agencies all over the world in late November after officials in South Africa reported the first cases. Compared to older lineages, Omicron features around 50 key mutations, some 30 of which are on the spike protein that helps the virus to grab onto our cells.
Some of the mutations are associated with a virus’s ability to dodge antibodies and thus partially evade vaccines. Others are associated with higher transmissibility. The lineage’s genetic makeup pointed to a huge spike in infections in the unvaccinated as well as an increase in milder “breakthrough” infections in the vaccinated.
That’s exactly what happened. Health officials registered more than 10 million new COVID cases the first week of January. That’s nearly double the previous worst week for new infections, back in May. Around 3 million of those infections were in the United States, where Omicron coincided with the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year holidays and associated traveling and family gatherings.
But mercifully, deaths haven’t increased as much as cases have. Worldwide, there were 43,000 COVID deaths the first week of January—fewer than 10,000 of them in the U.S. While deaths tend to lag infections by a couple weeks, Omicron has been dominant long enough that it’s increasingly evident there’s been what statisticians call a “decoupling” of cases and fatalities.
“We can say we dodged a bullet in that Omicron does not appear to cause as serious of a disease,” Stephanie James, the head of a COVID testing lab at Regis University in Colorado, told The Daily Beast. She stressed that data is still being gathered, so we can’t be certain yet that the apparent decoupling is real.
Assuming the decoupling is happening, experts attribute it to two factors. First, Omicron tends to infect the throat without necessarily descending to the lungs, where the potential for lasting or fatal damage is much, much higher. Second, by now, countries have administered nearly 9.3 billion doses of vaccine—enough for a majority of the world’s population to have received at least one dose.
In the United States, 73 percent of people have gotten at least one dose. Sixty-two percent have gotten two doses of the best mRNA vaccines. A third have received a booster dose.
Yes, Omicron has some ability to evade antibodies, meaning the vaccines are somewhat less effective against this lineage than they are against Delta and other older lineages. But even when a vaccine doesn’t prevent an infection, it usually greatly reduces its severity.
For many vaccinated people who’ve caught Omicron, the resulting COVID infection is mild. “A common cold or some sniffles in a fully vaxxed and boosted healthy individual,” is how Eric Bortz, a University of Alaska-Anchorage virologist and public health expert, described it to The Daily Beast.
All that is to say, Omicron could have been a lot worse. Viruses evolve to survive. That can mean greater transmissibility, antibody-evasion or more serious infection. Omicron mutated for the former two. There’s a chance some future Sigma or Upsilon lineage could do all three.
When it comes to viral mutations, “extreme events can occur at a non-negligible rate, or probability, and can lead to large consequences,” Michael said. Imagine a lineage that’s as transmissible as Omicron but also attacks the lungs like Delta tends to do. Now imagine that this hypothetical lineage is even more adept than Omicron at evading the vaccines.
That would be the nightmare lineage. And it’s entirely conceivable it’s in our future. There are enough vaccine holdouts, such as the roughly 50 million Americans who say they’ll never get jabbed, that the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen should have ample opportunities for mutation.
“As long as we have unvaccinated people in this country—and across the globe—there is the potential for new and possibly more concerning viral variants to arise,” Aimee Bernard, a University of Colorado immunologist, told The Daily Beast.
Worse, this ongoing viral evolution is happening against a backdrop of waning immunity. Antibodies, whether vaccine-induced or naturally occurring from past infection, fade over time. It’s not for no reason that health agencies in many countries urge booster doses just three months after initial vaccination. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is an outlier, and recommends people get boosted after five months.
A lineage much worse than Omicron could evolve at the same time that antibodies wane in billions of people all over the world. That’s why many experts believe the COVID vaccines will end up being annual or even semi-annual jabs. You’ll need a fourth jab, a fifth jab, a sixth jab, et cetera, forever.
Israel, a world leader in global health, is already turning that expectation into policy. Citing multiple studies that showed a big boost in antibodies with an additional dose of mRNA and no safety concerns, the country’s health ministry this week began offering a fourth dose to anyone over the age of 60, who tend to be more vulnerable to COVID than younger people.
That should be the standard everywhere, Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington Institute for Health, told The Daily Beast. “Scientifically, they’re right,” he said of the Israeli health officials.
If there’s a downside, it’s that there are still a few poorer countries—in Africa, mostly—where many people still struggle to get access to any vaccine, let alone boosters and fourth doses. If and when other richer countries follow Israel’s lead and begin offering additional jabs, there’s some risk of even greater inequity in global vaccine distribution.
“The downside is for the rest of the world,” Mokdad said. “I’m waiting to get my first dose and you guys are getting a fourth?”
The solution isn’t to deprive people of the doses they need to maintain their protection against future—and potentially more dangerous—lineages. The solution, for vaccine-producing countries, is to further boost production and double down on efforts to push vaccines out to the least privileged communities.
A sense of urgency is key. For all its rapid spread, Omicron has actually gone fairly easy on us. Sigma or Upsilon might not.
Over the past two years, historians and analysts have compared the coronavirus to the 1918 flu pandemic. Many of the mitigation practices used to combat the spread of the coronavirus, especially before the development of the vaccines, have been the same as those used in 1918 and 1919 — masks and hygiene, social distancing, ventilation, limits on gatherings (particularly indoors), quarantines, mandates, closure policies and more.
Yet, it may be that only now, in the winter of 2022, when Americans are exhausted with these mitigation methods, that a comparison to the 1918 pandemic is most apt.
The highly contagious omicron variant has rendered vaccines much less effective at preventing infections, thus producing skyrocketing caseloads. And that creates a direct parallel with the fall of 1918, which provides lessons for making January as painless as possible.
In February and March 1918, an infectious flu emerged. It spread from Kansas, through World War I troop and material transports, filling military post hospitals and traveling across the Atlantic and around the world within six months. Cramped quarters and wartime transport and industry generated optimal conditions for the flu to spread, and so, too, did the worldwide nature of commerce and connection. But there was a silver lining: Mortality rates were very low.
In part because of press censorship of anything that might undermine the war effort, many dismissed the flu as a “three-day fever,” perhaps merely a heavy cold, or simply another case of the grippe (an old-fashioned word for the flu).
Downplaying the flu led to high infection rates, which increased the odds of mutations. And in the summer of 1918, a more infectious variant emerged. In August and September, U.S. and British intelligence officers observed outbreaks in Switzerland and northern Europe, writing home with warnings that went largely unheeded.
Unsurprisingly then, this seemingly more infectious, much more deadly variant of H1N1 traveled west across the Atlantic, producing the worst period of the pandemic in October 1918. Nearly 200,000 Americans died that month. After a superspreading Liberty Loan parade at the end of September, Philadelphia became an epicenter of the outbreak. At its peak, nearly 700 Philadelphians died per day.
Once spread had begun, mitigation methods such as closures, distancing, mask-wearing and isolating those infected couldn’t stop it, but they did save many lives and limited suffering by slowing infections and spread. The places that fared best implemented proactive restrictions early; they kept them in place until infections and hospitalizations were way down, then opened up gradually, with preparations to reimpose measures if spread returned or rates elevated, often ignoring the pleas of special interests lobbying hard for a complete reopening.
In places in the United States where officials gave in to public fatigue and lobbying to remove mitigation methods, winter surges struck. Although down from October’s highs, these surges were still usually far worse than those in the cities and regions that held steady.
In Denver, in late November 1918, an “amusement” lobby — businesses and leaders invested in keeping theaters, movie houses, pool halls and other public venues open — successfully pressured the mayor and public health officials to rescind and then revise a closure order. This, in turn, generated what the Rocky Mountain News called “almost indescribable confusion,” followed by widespread public defiance of mask and other public health prescriptions.
In San Francisco, where resistance was generally less successful than in Denver, there was significant buy-in for a second round of masking and public health mandates in early 1919 during a new surge. But opposition created an issue. An Anti-Mask League formed, and public defiance became more pronounced. Eventually anti-maskers and an improving epidemic situation combined to end the “masked” city’s second round of mask and public health mandates.
The takeaway: Fatigue and removing mitigation methods made things worse. Public officials needed to safeguard the public good, even if that meant unpopular moves.
The flu burned through vulnerable populations, but by late winter and early spring 1919, deaths and infections dropped rapidly, shifting toward an endemic moment — the flu would remain present, but less deadly and dangerous.
Overall, nearly 675,000 Americans died during the 1918-19 flu pandemic, the majority during the second wave in the autumn of 1918. That was 1 in roughly 152 Americans (with a case fatality rate of about 2.5 percent). Worldwide estimates differ, but on the order of 50 million probably died in the flu pandemic.
In 2022, we have far greater biomedical and technological capacity enabling us to sequence mutations, understand the physics of aerosolization and develop vaccines at a rapid pace. We also have a far greater public health infrastructure than existed in 1918 and 1919. Even so, it remains incredibly hard to stop infectious diseases, particularly those transmitted by air. This is complicated further because many of those infected with the coronavirus are asymptomatic. And our world is even more interconnected than in 1918.
That is why, given the contagiousness of omicron, the lessons of the past are even more important today than they were a year ago. The new surge threatens to overwhelm our public health infrastructure, which is struggling after almost two years of fighting the pandemic. Hospitals are experiencing staff shortages (like in fall 1918). Testing remains problematic.
And ominously, as in the fall of 1918, Americans fatigued by restrictions and a seemingly endless pandemic are increasingly balking at following the guidance of public health professionals or questioning why their edicts have changed from earlier in the pandemic. They are taking actions that, at the very least, put more vulnerable people and the system as a whole at risk — often egged on by politicians and media figures downplaying the severity of the moment.
Public health officials also may be repeating the mistakes of the past. Conjuring echoes of Denver in late 1918, under pressure to prioritize keeping society open rather than focusing on limiting spread, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention changed its isolation recommendations in late December. The new guidelines halved isolation time and do not require a negative test to reenter work or social gatherings.
Thankfully, we have an enormous advantage over 1918 that offers hope. Whereas efforts to develop a flu vaccine a century ago failed, the coronavirus vaccines developed in 2020 largely prevent severe illness or death from omicron, and the companies and researchers that produced them expect a booster shot tailored to omicron sometime in the winter or spring. So, too, we have antivirals and new treatments that are just becoming available, though in insufficient quantities for now.
Those lifesaving advantages, however, can only help as much as Americans embrace them. Only by getting vaccinated, including with booster shots, can Americans prevent the health-care system from being overwhelmed. But the vaccination rate in the country remains a relatively paltry 62 percent, and only a scant 1 in 5 have received a booster shot. And as in 1918, some of the choice rests with public officials. Though restrictions may not be popular, officials can reimpose them — offering public support where necessary to those for whom compliance would create hardship — and incentivize and mandate vaccines, taking advantage of our greater medical technology.
As the flu waned in 1919, one Portland, Ore., health official reflected that “the biggest thing we have had to fight in the influenza epidemic has been apathy, or perhaps the careless selfishness of the public.”
The same remains true today.
Vaccines, new treatments and century-old mitigation strategies such as masks, distancing and limits on gatherings give us a pathway to prevent the first six weeks of 2022 from being like the fall of 1918. And encouraging news about the severity of omicron provides real optimism that an endemic future — in which the coronavirus remains but poses far less of a threat — is near. The question is whether we get there with a maximum of pain or a minimum. The choice is ours.
Healthy individuals who have been vaccinated, and especially those who have been boosted, appear unlikely to develop severe infections from the omicron variant that would land them in the hospital, say medical experts who have monitored the effects of the newest coronavirus variant since it was identified over four weeks ago.
While omicron has sent U.S. infections soaring to levels not seen since last winter’s wave, it appears to have less severe effects than the delta variant, according to a handful of international studies and early data from several U.S. hospitals.
Those infected by the omicron variant are 15 to 20 percent less likely to go to an emergency room, and 40 percent less likely to be hospitalized overnight, compared with those infected with delta, according to English data analyzed by scientists from Imperial College London. That aligns with early U.S. data from some hospitals.
At the Houston Methodist hospital system, about 15 percent of symptomatic individuals have ended up hospitalized — around a 70 percent reduction compared with those infected by the delta variant, said James Musser, chair of pathology and genomic medicine.
A separate study from Britain, which is not yet peer reviewed, found that people infected with omicron were almost 60 percent less likely to enter the hospital than those infected with delta.
“What is absolutely clear is there is lower rate of hospitalization with our omicron patients in our hospital system,” Musser said. “That does not necessarily mean that this variant is quote-unquote ‘less virulent.’ The jury’s still out on that. What we know now is that … if you are immunized and, more importantly, if you are boosted, you’re going to stay out of substantial trouble.”
He and other experts warn against complacency, however, cautioning that millions of Americans, particularly the unvaccinated, remain vulnerable to more serious disease from the most transmissible coronavirus variant to date.
Other factors that might lead to greater risk include an individual’s age, the type of vaccine or booster they received, and whether they have underlying health problems, such as heart disease or obesity, said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and a member of President Biden’s covid-19 transition task force.
“Have you previously had infection? Were you vaccinated? How many doses of vaccine, and was it more than six months ago? So in some ways this is almost like a calculus problem. It’s got a lot of moving parts to it and we’re trying to figure it out,” Osterholm said.
Doctors also caution that far more people will become infected with omicron simply because of its transmissibility. If even a small fraction of those land in the hospital, they worry that health care systems that are already short-staffed because of delta infections could be overwhelmed — with potentially dire results for those needing critical care as a result of car accidents, heart attacks, strokes, or any number of things that bring people to emergency rooms.
“We need to be respectful of the fact that our hospital system has been under this kind of duress for such a long time,” said Larry Corey, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. “We need to do everything we can to not allow the situation, where there’s such crowding and such intensity that we can’t optimally take care of the people who get severe disease.”
Anthony S. Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser, said the rapid increase in the numbers of people getting infected with the omicron variant will invariably put additional strain on the system.
“We’re going to have a real challenge to the health-care delivery system — namely the number of beds, the number of ICU beds and even the number of health care providers,” Fauci said in an interview. “Even vaccinated people are getting breakthrough infections. So if you get enough nurses and doctors infected, they are going to temporarily be out of action. And if you get enough of them out of action, you could have a double stress on the health care system.”
The welcome news for most people who are vaccinated and boosted is that omicron infections often mimic the symptoms of the common cold. Those with two shots of vaccine, but no booster, also appear to fare relatively well, though they may develop more intense symptoms that may last longer, experts said.
In a series of Twitter posts, Craig Spencer, who teaches emergency medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, said every boosted patient he has seen in the emergency room has had no difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Those who have had two doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines also have had mild symptoms, he said, “but more than those who had received a third dose.”
But almost every patient who had to be hospitalized was unvaccinated, he said.
“No matter your political affiliation, or thoughts on masks, or where you live in this country, as an ER doctor you’d trust with your life if you rolled into my emergency room at 3am, I promise you that you’d rather face the oncoming Omicron wave vaccinated,” Spencer wrote.
Experts cautioned that those at higher risk of severe infection to previous variants probably remain vulnerable to this one.
It’s not yet clear whether older, boosted individuals and those with underlying conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease, face the same lowered risk with omicron. Answering such questions is key to assessing the likely trajectory of the variant in the U.S. since it is older and less healthy than many of its global peers.
So far, though, early U.S. data echoes what has been seen in South Africa and Britain, where omicron waves are slightly ahead of this country’s.
A group of Scottish scientists said recently that vaccinated people appear to have some protection against symptomatic infection from omicron, although less than they did against delta. A third dose or booster of an mRNA vaccine was associated with a 57 percent reduction in the odds of developing a symptomatic omicron case.
In the Johns Hopkins Hospital emergency department, physicians are seeing more infections than atany other point in the pandemic, but most of the cases are not severe, said Stuart Ray, a professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases. But he warned that there is not yet “reassuring evidence” the United States will be spared from a disruptive wave of infections and complications.
The country faces other challenges with omicron in terms of its medicine cabinet. Two of the three existing intravenous treatments called monoclonal antibodies — those from Regeneron and Eli Lilly — do not work against the variant. Some Republican governors had touted the ability of those with covid-19 to receive monoclonal antibodies, spurring some Americans to see those treatments as an alternative to getting vaccinated.
The only monoclonal antibody that does work, sotrovimab from Vir Biotechnology and GlaxoSmithKline, is in short supply and will not be available to many of those who become infected. The Food and Drug Administration authorized two easy-to-take antiviral pills last week and one has high efficacy against omicron, but it will be in initial short supply. Distribution of the pills is expected to begin shortly.
It is also unclear whether the surge in the United States will follow the same pattern as South Africa’s, which rapidly passed the peak of omicron cases last week.
South Africa’s population is significantly younger and has far lower vaccination rates, with about 35 percent of the population immunized, and virtually no oneboosted.The country also grappled with a delta variant wave that infected a far greater portion of the population than it did in the United States.
The significant number of South African residents infected with delta compared with the United States could prove to be an important distinction that might make more Americans vulnerable to omicron, said Chris Beyrer, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Beyrer also noted that infections in the United States, Britain and Germany seemed to be increasing at a significantly faster rate than they were in South Africa.
“This is an incredibly infectious virus and it is moving right along,” Beyrer said. He added that the United States has numerous tools — including ready access to vaccines and booster shots, the new antiviral medicines, testing and masking — that could help curb its effects.
But referring to those who have refused to follow public health guidelines, Beyrer said, “We have a lot of resistance so that makes us vulnerable to infection.”
For nearly two years, Americans have looked carefully at coronavirus case numbers in the country and in their local states and towns to judge the risk of the disease.
Surging case numbers signaled growing dangers, while falling case numbers were a relief and a signal to let one’s guard down in terms of gathering with friends and families and taking part in all kinds of events.
But with much of the nation’s population vaccinated and boosted and the country dealing with a new COVID-19 surge from omicron — a highly contagious variant that some studies suggest may not be as severe as previous variants — public health officials are debating whether the nation needs to shift its thinking.
Many people are going to get omicron — but those that are vaccinated and boosted are unlikely to suffer dire symptoms.
As a result, hospitalizations and deaths are the markers that government officials need to monitor carefully to ensure the safety of communities as the nation learns to live with COVID-19.
“This is the new normal,” said Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University and former Baltimore health commissioner. “This is what we will have to accept as we transition from the emergency of COVID-19 to living with it as part of the new normal.”
David Dowdy, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said that Americans all need to shift to focus on hospitalizations over cases as we enter into another year of the pandemic.
“I think that we need to start training ourselves to look, first of all, at hospitalizations. I think hospitalizations are a real-time indicator of how serious things are,” he said.
Rising case numbers still say something about the disease, and the spikes from omicron are leading to real concerns.
Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, noted on Sunday that even if omicron leads to less severe cases of COVID-19, if it infects tens of millions it will have the potential of straining resources in hospitals.
“If you have many, many, many more people with a less level of severity, that might kind of neutralize the positive effect of having less severity when you have so many more people,” he said during an appearance on ABC’s “This Week.”
At the same time, the nation must get used to dealing with the coronavirus as it would deal with an annual flu season. It’s a challenge for most parts of American life, from schools and businesses that have to consider worker and student safety, to professional sports leagues that must decide how long someone sits out after a positive test — even if the person is vaccinated and not symptomatic.
“Omicron in a way is the first test of what it means to live with COVID-19,” said Wen. “And by that I mean we are going to see many people getting infected but as long as our hospital systems are not overwhelmed and as long as vaccinated people are generally protected against severe outcomes, that is how we end the pandemic phase and switch into the endemic phase.”
The omicron strain is so infectious that once the current surge has faded in the United States, it’s likely a large majority of the population will either have been vaccinated against COVID-19 or have been infected, experts say. At that point, the focus should shift away from preventing infection to preventing serious illness, multiple experts said, a message already being echoed in some corners of the White House.
Many states have been seeing staggering numbers of positive tests and lines for COVID-19 testing that stretch for several blocks. Washington, D.C., and New York state have set records in recent days for the number of new cases reported as omicron barrels through the population.
But even with case totals surpassing last year’s numbers, President Biden and White House officials have been quick to point out that hospitalizations haven’t been as high as the numbers seen in the winter of 2020.
“Because we have so many vaccinated and boosted, we’re not seeing hospitalizations drive as sharply as we did in March of 2020 or even this past fall. America has made progress; things are better,” Biden said on Monday on a White House COVID-19 response team call with the National Governors Association to discuss the administration’s response to the omicron variant.
“But we do know that with rising cases, we still have tens of millions of unvaccinated people and we’re seeing hospitalizations rise,” he added, saying that some hospitals are going to get overrun both in terms of equipment and staff.
The White House pointed to Biden’s remarks last week when asked about whether the president wants Americans and health experts to take the emphasis off of case numbers and put it on hospitalizations.
“Because omicron spreads so easily, we’ll see some fully vaccinated people get COVID, potentially in large numbers. There will be positive cases in every office, even here in the White House, among the vaccinated … from omicron. But these cases are highly unlikely to lead to serious illness,” Biden said on Dec. 21.
Chief of staff Ron Klain on Monday retweeted a CNN report about how hospitalizations are about 70 percent less than what they were around the last peak in September, but that COVID-19 cases in unvaccinated Americans could end up overwhelming health systems.
Health experts have suggested the White House’s shift in messaging away from a focus on the number of cases is a sign of what’s to come as the pandemic eventually becomes endemic.
“For two years, infections always preceded hospitalizations which preceded deaths, so you could look at infections and know what was coming,” Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said Sunday on ABC. “Omicron changes that. This is the shift we’ve been waiting for in many ways.”
Dowdy said positive tests are also up because people are getting tested before visiting relatives.
“If a lot of people are testing positive because they are asymptomatic and wanting to make sure that they can travel etc., having a lot of those kinds of cases is not a big problem,” he said.
“In fact, that’s a good thing. It means that we’re doing the right thing as a country to define those cases,” Dowdy added.
Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health at Georgetown University, said the shift away from tracking case numbers as a way to measure the pandemic means devoting more resources toward treatment options like the Pfizer antiviral pill.
Gostin also said testing should increasingly be used to self-diagnose so individuals can get proper treatment, rather than testing for the purpose of stopping the spread of the virus.
“The White House has got a very difficult balancing act. Certainly for now it’s going to have to emphasize the idea of masking and distancing for the purpose of protecting the health system,” Gostin said.
“We can’t live our lives in a bubble to prevent us from getting a pathogen that’s so contagious that you can’t avoid it if you’re going to be circulating and living a life in this world,” he continued. “What it means to transition to a normal life or more normal life is you have to focus not so much on preventing cases, but on preventing hospitalizations and deaths.”
COVID-19 cases are surging across the U.S. ahead of Christmas, sparking the cancellation of sporting events and a growing list of hospitals postponing nonessential surgeries — both a reminder of last year’s holiday surge and a sign that the next several weeks will determine the pandemic’s trajectory for the rest of the winter months.
Nationwide, the daily average for new cases was more than 133,000 on Dec. 18, a 21 percent jump over the last two weeks, according to data compiled byThe New York Times.
Health officials have warned the omicron variant — which appears to cause less severe illness, though is more transmissible — could exacerbate the ongoing delta-fueled surge and overwhelm the healthcare system.
“I think we’re really just about to experience a viral blizzard,” Michael Osterholm, PhD, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told CNN during a Dec. 17 interview. “I think in the next three to eight weeks, we’re going to see millions of Americans are going to be infected with this virus, and that will be overlaid on top of delta, and we’re not yet sure exactly how that’s going to work out.”
New York — where omicron accounts for at least 13 percent of new cases — for two consecutive days set a record for the daily number of new cases reported. Health officials reported more than 21,000 new cases on Dec.17 and 21,908 on Dec. 18. Three Midwestern states and Vermont also set COVID-19 records last week, including Ohio, which reported nearly 12,000 new cases Dec. 16.
While early data suggests omicron is tied to less severe illness than the original strain, health officials have warned against underestimating the virus. The outgoing National Institutes of Health director, Francis Collins, MD, PhD, offered a grim projection during a Dec. 19 interview with NPR.
“Even if it has somewhat lower risk of severity, we could be having a million cases a day if we’re not really attentive to all of those mitigation strategies,” Dr. Collins said.
Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said areas with low vaccination coverage will likely be especially hard hit across the coming weeks.
“We are going to see significant stress in some regions of the country on the hospital system, particularly in those areas where you have a low level of vaccination, which is one of the reasons why we continue to stress the importance of getting those unvaccinated people vaccinated,” he told CNNDec. 19, adding that in some regions of the U.S., omicron accounts for 50 percent of new infections, “which means it’s going to take over.”
“This virus is extraordinary. It has a doubling time of anywhere from two to three days,” Dr. Fauci said.
The daily average for U.S. COVID-19 hospitalizations was more than 69,000 as of Dec. 19, marking a 16 percent rise across the last two weeks; and while omicron may be associated with lower disease severity, a significant surge would inevitably lead to more hospitalizations and deaths, health officials say. Connecticut, Washington, D.C., and Rhode Island have seen the highest percent increase in hospitalization rates over the last two weeks.
As the holidays and planned celebrations near, Dr. Fauci emphasized the importance of booster doses in combating the surge. He urged against holiday gatherings and travel among people who have not been fully vaccinated or received their boosters. Given a rise in breakthrough cases, he also suggested people take a rapid test before attending a gathering.
“If you do these things … I do believe that you can feel quite comfortable with a family setting, the dinners and the gatherings that you have around the holiday season,” Dr. Fauci told ABC NewsDec. 19. “Nothing is 100 percent risk-free, but I think if you do the things that I just mentioned, you’d actually mitigate that risk enough to feel comfortable about being able to enjoy the holiday.”
Moderna said Dec. 20 that a booster dose of its vaccine increased antibody levels against omicron 37-fold. Laboratory findings from Pfizer also indicate its booster offers significant protection against the strain.
CDC data showed 61.4 percent of the nation’s population had been fully vaccinated as of Dec. 19. Nearly 30 percent of the fully vaccinated population had received their booster dose.