Omicron sweeps across the U.S.

A lot remains a mystery about omicron, which has more than twice the number of mutations as the delta variant, with the bulk found in the spike, the crown-like protein on the surface of the virus that vaccines train our bodies to attack. This colorized scanning electron micrograph of a cell heavily infected with SARS-CoV-2 virus particles (orange/red) was captured at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in 2020. (NIAID via ZUMA Wire/TNS)

In Boston, coronavirus levels measured in wastewater are spiking to more than quadruple last winter’s surge. In Miami, more than a quarter of people are testing positive for COVID-19. And San Francisco medical leader estimates that, based on his hospital’s tests, one of every 12 people in the city with no COVID-19 symptoms actually has the virus.

As the omicron variant sweeps the country, daily cases are reaching unheard-of levels, crossing the half-million mark, and are only expected to go much higher.

Some projections are for a peak of more than 1 million cases a day by as early as mid-January. “That seems totally plausible to me, given that we’re already at almost 600,000,” said Sam Scarpino, managing director of pathogen surveillance at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Pandemic Prevention Institute.

On the plus side, hospitalizations and deaths have been rising more slowly, and it remains to be seen whether omicron’s casualty toll will reach levels of previous surges. The variant so far appears to naturally cause less severe illness, and widespread immunity, whether from vaccines or previous infections, has also been critically important.

However, the sheer numbers of those falling ill could continue to cause havoc in communities and in essential services ranging from schools and hospitals to airlines and subways.

“If the teachers and custodial and cafeteria staff are sick, if all the people who make the schools run are sick, it may be out of our hands whether we have the schools close,” Scarpino said.

As more and more Americans rely on rapid tests, the results of which are not reported to public health authorities, the official case numbers become less reliable. That’s why other ways to measure the spread are gaining in importance. Wastewater, for example, has proven a dependable indicator of virus prevalence, and the latest measurements confirm an unprecedented spike.

Around this time last year, analysis found 1,500 copies of COVID-19 RNA per milliliter in Massachusetts water, said Newsha Ghaeli, co-founder and president of Biobot Analytics, which is tracking wastewater COVID in 20 states. Now, it’s up to 7,000 copies per milliliter, she said.

Past research suggests virus spikes in wastewater precede spikes in clinical cases by four to 10 days, she said, though those studies predate vaccines. “The data might look scary but we’re prepared,” she said.

COVID-19 levels in sewage are spiking elsewhere in the U.S. In Florida’s Orange County, which includes Orlando, COVID-19 levels this week were double previous record highs from the summer, as the delta variant peaked.

Omicron’s aggressive assault pushed new daily COVID-19 cases in Florida to a record 58,013 on Dec. 29, more than double pre-Christmas levels, according to the CDC. The surge is starting to stress hospitals, where reported daily cases have been breaking records all week. On Thursday, 4,000 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 in the state, almost doubling in three days, according to the Florida Hospital Association. That’s still a long way from the summer surge of the delta variant, when hospitalizations from COVID-19 peaked at 17,121.

The arrival of omicron, though, has sparked chaos at COVID-19 testing sites around the state. In Miami, cars have been lining up for 10 blocks or more at massive, drive-through testing sites in county parks that two weeks ago were nearly empty. When two dozen public libraries began offering free at-home test kits, people began lining up at 4 a.m., quickly emptying stockpiles. As of today, almost 28% of those tested were positive for COVID-19, CDC data show.

In Puerto Rico, COVID-19 cases have jumped 45-fold over the past two weeks, even as the island boasts being the most vaccinated U.S. jurisdiction. As of Friday, the health department said 80% of the eligible population has at least two shots.

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott asked the federal government to send medical staff, therapeutic drugs and testing equipment to aid the state’s fight to help contain the latest wave. The request targets six counties that include the Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Fort Worth and Austin areas, all of which are experiencing alarming growth in positivity rates and hospitalizations, Abbott said in an emailed statement.

Ultimately, said the Rockefeller Foundation’s Scarpino, the rise in cases is so steep that it looks to him and his colleagues like someone was playing with a mathematical model of disease spread, and tweaked a parameter to make infections “shoot through the roof.” ——— (C)2021 Bloomberg L.P. Visit bloomberg.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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(1) comment

Joseph Savoca

This is yet another dangerous but avoidable situation that the country is entering.

With so many people sick and hospitalizations rising, is such a need for healthcare workers, but more workers can't be manufactured out of thin air.

By working in such a job, and so thankless, healthcare workers are much more likely to get covid-19 than others due to their constant exposure to the virus.

So many hospitalized covid-19 patients means the need for more healthcare workers.

Eventually, even healthcare workers get burnt out from the continual stress and quit or retire.

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