Biden administration’s vaccine mandate for healthcare workers is a go, but its mandate for large employers and at-home testing plan face roadblocks. The US Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the vaccine mandate for the nation’s healthcare workers at facilities participating in Medicare and Medicaid can go forward while lower courts hear legal challenges. But it said that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) did not have the authority to enforce the broader vaccine-or-test mandate for businesses over 100 employees, which would have covered more than 80 million private sector workers.
Meanwhile, private insurers are required to begin covering eight at-home tests per beneficiary per month starting tomorrow. The roughly half of Americans with private insurance coverage stand to benefit, if they’re lucky enough to get their hands on rapid tests, which have been in increasingly scarce supply.
The Gist: Health systems that were early to issue vaccine mandates will have a leg up on others who paused requirements amid ongoing legal challenges. Lagging facilities now have a little over a month to start enforcement amid troublesome staffing shortages.
Also, the use of the private insurance system to cover at-home tests not only excludes nearly 40 million seniors on traditional Medicare, as well as the uninsured, but means that the cost of tests will ultimately be borne by consumers and employers through higher insurance premiums.
Hospitals across the U.S. are feeling the wrath of the omicron variant and getting thrown into disarray that is different from earlier COVID-19 surges.
This time, they are dealing with serious staff shortages because so many health care workers are getting sick with the fast-spreading variant. People are showing up at emergency rooms in large numbers in hopes of getting tested for COVID-19, putting more strain on the system. And a surprising share of patients — two-thirds in some places — are testing positive while in the hospital for other reasons.
At the same time, hospitals say the patients aren’t as sick as those who came in during the last surge. Intensive care units aren’t as full, and ventilators aren’t needed as much as they were before.
The pressures are nevertheless prompting hospitals to scale back non-emergency surgeries and close wards, while National Guard troops have been sent in in several states to help at medical centers and testing sites.
Nearly two years into the pandemic, frustration and exhaustion are running high among health care workers.
“This is getting very tiring, and I’m being very polite in saying that,” said Dr. Robert Glasgow of University of Utah Health, which has hundreds of workers out sick or in isolation.
About 85,000 Americans are in the hospital with COVID-19, just short of the delta-surge peak of about 94,000 in early September, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The all-time high during the pandemic was about 125,000 in January of last year.
But the hospitalization numbers do not tell the whole story. Some cases in the official count involve COVID-19 infections that weren’t what put the patients in the hospital in the first place.
Dr. Fritz François, chief of hospital operations at NYU Langone Health in New York City, said about 65% of patients admitted to that system with COVID-19 recently were primarily hospitalized for something else and were incidentally found to have the virus.
At two large Seattle hospitals over the past two weeks, three-quarters of the 64 patients testing positive for the coronavirus were admitted with a primary diagnosis other than COVID-19.
Joanne Spetz, associate director of research at the Healthforce Center at the University of California, San Francisco, said the rising number of cases like that is both good and bad.
The lack of symptoms shows vaccines, boosters and natural immunity from prior infections are working, she said. The bad news is that the numbers mean the coronavirus is spreading rapidly, and some percentage of those people will wind up needing hospitalization.
This week, 36% of California hospitals reported critical staffing shortages. And 40% are expecting such shortages.
Some hospitals are reporting as much as one quarter of their staff out for virus-related reasons, said Kiyomi Burchill, the California Hospital Association’s vice president for policy and leader on pandemic matters.
In response, hospitals are turning to temporary staffing agencies or transferring patients out.
University of Utah Health plans to keep more than 50 beds open because it doesn’t have enough nurses. It is also rescheduling surgeries that aren’t urgent. In Florida, a hospital temporarily closed its maternity ward because of staff shortages.
In Alabama, where most of the population is unvaccinated, UAB Health in Birmingham put out an urgent request for people to go elsewhere for COVID-19 tests or minor symptoms and stay home for all but true emergencies. Treatment rooms were so crowded that some patients had to be evaluated in hallways and closets.
As of Monday, New York state had just over 10,000 people in the hospital with COVID-19, including 5,500 in New York City. That’s the most in either the city or state since the disastrous spring of 2020.
New York City hospital officials, though, reported that things haven’t become dire. Generally, the patients aren’t as sick as they were back then. Of the patients hospitalized in New York City, around 600 were in ICU beds.
“We’re not even halfway to what we were in April 2020,” said Dr. David Battinelli, the physician-in-chief for Northwell Health, New York state’s largest hospital system.
Similarly, in Washington state, the number of COVID-19-infected people on ventilators increased over the past two weeks, but the share of patients needing such equipment dropped.
In South Carolina, which is seeing unprecedented numbers of new cases and a sharp rise in hospitalizations, Gov. Henry McMaster took note of the seemingly less-serious variant and said: “There’s no need to panic. Be calm. Be happy.”
Amid the omicron-triggered surge in demand for COVID-19 testing across the U.S., New York City’s Fire Department is asking people not to call for ambulance just because they are having trouble finding a test.
In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine announced new or expanded testing sites in nine cities to steer test-seekers away from ERs. About 300 National Guard members are being sent to help out at those centers.
In Connecticut, many ER patients are in beds in hallways, and nurses are often working double shifts because of staffing shortages, said Sherri Dayton, a nurse at the Backus Plainfield Emergency Care Center. Many emergency rooms have hours-long waiting times, she said.
“We are drowning. We are exhausted,” Dayton said.
Doctors and nurses are complaining about burnout and a sense their neighbors are no longer treating the pandemic as a crisis, despite day after day of record COVID-19 cases.
“In the past, we didn’t have the vaccine, so it was us all hands together, all the support. But that support has kind of dwindled from the community, and people seem to be moving on without us,” said Rachel Chamberlin, a nurse at New Hampshire’s Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.
Edward Merrens, chief clinical officer at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Health, said more than 85% of the hospitalized COVID-19 patients were unvaccinated.
Several patients in the hospital’s COVID-19 ICU unit were on ventilators, a breathing tube down their throats. In one room, staff members made preparations for what they feared would be the final family visit for a dying patient.
One of the unvaccinated was Fred Rutherford, a 55-year-old from Claremont, New Hampshire. His son carried him out of the house when he became sick and took him to the hospital, where he needed a breathing tube for a while and feared he might die.
If he returns home, he said, he promises to get vaccinated and tell others to do so too.
“I probably thought I was immortal, that I was tough,” Rutherford said, speaking from his hospital bed behind a window, his voice weak and shaky.
But he added: “I will do anything I can to be the voice of people that don’t understand you’ve got to get vaccinated. You’ve got to get it done to protect each other.”
Many people around the world kicked off 2022 by searching for more information about “flurona,” after Israel reported that two young pregnant women had tested positive for both the coronavirus and the flu.
Doctors have long been concerned about the potential impact of a “twindemic” — with influenza cases rising as covid-19 cases threaten to overwhelm hospitals — and called on people to get flu shots and coronavirus vaccinations. On the other hand, “flurona” refers to when one person has both respiratory infections at the same time — which health officials say is a possibility as cases of the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus surge this winter across the world.
Here’s what we know so far.
Are cases of flurona new?
After two young pregnant women tested positive for both the coronavirus and influenza in Israel, many local and global media outlets dubbed it “flurona” in headlines. The Sun, a British tabloid, swiftly branded the co-infection “double trouble.”
While the word is relatively new and rising in popularity, cases of flu and coronavirus co-infections are not. And flurona is not a distinct disease but refers to when a person has been infected with both viruses. Flurona instances have been detected in countries including the United States, Israel, Brazil, the Philippines and Hungary, some even before the term was coined.
Instances of the co-infection were reported in the United States almost two years ago, according to a report from the Atlantic. In February 2020, a man entered a New York hospital with a severe cough and fever. At the time, the city had not officially reported any cases of the coronavirus. The patient tested positive for influenza and was then tested for the coronavirus. Weeks later, results confirmed that he, along with threefamily members, had contracted both viruses.
Where has flurona been reported?
There have been other recent occurrences in the United States.A Houston teenager spent Christmas Day isolating in his bedroom after contracting the coronavirus and the flu at the same time. Alec Zierlein, who had been vaccinated against the coronavirus but not the flu, was also tested for strep throat, but results confirmed he had only the former two infections, which he described as being “like a mild cold.” After his diagnosis, Zierlein told ABC News that he was not aware the coronavirus and the flu could stack “up on one another” and that he would, in the future, get a flu shot as a precaution.
A health official in the Philippines has also said that such co-infections are not unusual. Edsel Salvana, a member of a technical advisory group to the national health department, said the country’s first covid-related death stemmed from a joint case in early 2020.Salvana told reporters that the early pandemic patient, a Chinese national, had covid-19 and influenza B, as well as streptococcus pneumonia, according to local outlet ABS-CBN.
An initial case report showed that the patient, who was the world’s first known covid-19 death outside of China, had a fever, cough and chills. “It’s an unfortunate confluence of events that you are exposed to two pathogens,” said Salvana, who reminded the public to get vaccinated for the flu and pneumonia.
Hungary has also identified at least two flurona instances in recent weeks, broadcaster RTL reported Monday. As was the case in Israel, both patients were described as about 30 years old.
And Brazil is battling an out-of-season flu outbreak just as omicron cases are starting to rise. Health officials there have confirmed six instances of flurona across three states. Rio de Janeiro’s municipal health secretary, Daniel Soranz, told Spanish news agency EFE that 17 more cases were also under investigation. In one occurrence, a 16-year-old tested positive for both viruses but had light symptoms, which his mother attributed to his being fully vaccinated against both viruses, she told Brazilian media.
Is flurona more common this year?
In Israel’s Beilinson Hospital, where doctors recently diagnosed the two pregnant women with both infections, cases of the coronavirus are rising amid the omicron outbreak along with cases of influenza A, according to Arnon Vizhnitser, the director of gynecology.
In an interview with The Washington Post, Vizhnitser said that while cases of the flu were scarce last year, perhaps because of more stringent lockdown measures and social distancing, they are roaring back.
“This year is different from last year. Now we have another challenge,”he said, predicting that co-infections would probably continue to occur.
Some countries are on track to be hit much harder by the flu this year, while strict measures to control the spread of the coronavirus appeared to have largely prevented the “twindemic” scenario in 2020.
That’s the case in the United States, which had record lows as covid surged last winter but is now seeing rising flu cases. Europe’s flu season is also just starting — and likewise expected to be worse this year.
Vizhnitser said both pregnant women had the same symptoms and were given treatment to reduce their fevers. Both were immediately placed in isolation before they eventually returned home with healthy babies. According to Vizhnitser, only one of the women had been vaccinated against the coronavirus. She had also been boosted. The other patient had not received any form of inoculation against either virus.
Pregnant patients visiting Beilinson, the Israeli hospital, are being tested for both viruses if they have symptoms on arrival. Some medical workers, along with people older than 60, in Israel, which is aggressively ramping up its vaccination program, are being offered a second booster.
Are flu and covid together more dangerous?
While many countries track coronavirus and flu cases, there appears to be little data on how many people have them at the same time. As more reports surface about co-infections, health experts and doctors stress that coronavirus and flu vaccines remain the best way to protect against severe infections.
“If you are vaccinated, the disease is very mild,” Vizhnitser said ofboth the coronavirus and flu. “Women who were not vaccinated [against the coronavirus] were very sick.”
It’s also a possibility that some patients will not be offered tests for both infections, with hospitals around the world using different approaches to treating and diagnosing patients.
What are the symptoms of flurona?
The coronavirus and influenza are respiratory infections, which can cause similar symptoms such as fever, coughing, fatigue, runny nose, sore throat and diarrhea, along with muscle and body aches. Both infections can be fatal, although the severity of each diagnosis depends largely on an individual’s immune system. Health workers, the elderly and those with underlying health conditions are more at risk for each virus.
The World Health Organization notes that the viruses are also transmitted in similar ways, through droplets and aerosols that can be passed on by coughing, sneezing, speaking, singing or breathing — which is why masking to protect others is widely encouraged by officials.
While the word is relatively new and rising in popularity, cases of flu and coronavirus co-infections are not. And flurona is not a distinct disease.
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.
Why are so many vaccinated people getting COVID-19 lately?
A couple of factors are at play, starting with the emergence of the highly contagious omicron variant. Omicron is more likely to infect people, even if it doesn’t make them very sick, and its surge coincided with the holiday travel season in many places.
People might mistakenly think the COVID-19 vaccines will completely block infection, but the shots are mainly designed to prevent severe illness, says Louis Mansky, a virus researcher at the University of Minnesota.
And the vaccines are still doing their job on that front, particularly for people who’ve gotten boosters.
Two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine still offer strong protection against serious illness from omicron. While those initial doses aren’t very good at blocking omicron infection, boosters — particularly with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines — rev up levels of the antibodies to help fend off infection.
Omicron appears to replicate much more efficiently than previous variants. And if infected people have high virus loads, there’s a greater likelihood they’ll pass it on to others, especially the unvaccinated. Vaccinated people who get the virus are more likely to have mild symptoms, if any, since the shots trigger multiple defenses in your immune system, making it much more difficult for omicron to slip past them all.
Advice for staying safe hasn’t changed. Doctors say to wear masks indoors, avoid crowds and get vaccinated and boosted. Even though the shots won’t always keep you from catching the virus, they’ll make it much more likely you stay alive and out of the hospital.
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.”
The number of children with covid-19 recently hospitalized in New York City has increased by nearly five times this month, state officials said at a news conference Monday.
For the week from Dec. 5, 22 children with covid-19 were admitted to hospitals in the city. During a five-day period beginning on Dec. 19, that figure rose to 109, reflecting a broader national surge in coronavirus infections driven in part by the omicron variant. Daily case counts in recent days have climbed to levels not seen since last winter, when coronavirus vaccines weren’t widely available, though the total number of hospitalizations is still significantly lower.
The increase in pediatric covid patients in New York City has been mirrored nationwide. As of last week, nearly 2,000 confirmed or suspected pediatric covid patients were hospitalized nationally, a 31 percent jump in 10 days.
New York City officials are hoping a city mandate that took effect Monday requiring workers at an estimated 184,000 businesses to get at least one vaccine dose will curb infections. “We need more and more people vaccinated,” Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) told reporters. “We need to keep doubling down on vaccination to get out of the covid era once and for all.”
De Blasio’s office announced the mandate earlier this month, just days after health officials disclosed the first case of the more transmissible omicron variant in the United States. But the mayor leaves office in a few days. Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a major corporate advocacy group, said she hopes Mayor-elect Eric Adams (D) will show flexibility in enforcement, the Associated Press reported.
Roughly 92 percent of the city’s adult population has received at least one dose of a vaccine, municipal data show, while 83 percent of adults are considered fully immunized. Youth vaccination rates remain lower: Nearly half the children ages 5 to 17 have not yet received a single dose, according to the city government.