The omicron variant is spreading rapidly in the United States, and new projections about where cases may be headed have alarmed health officials. In one scenario detailed this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the variant sets off a massive wave of infections that peaks as early as January. Officials worry that such a surge, combined with delta variant cases and influenza, could overwhelm already-strained health systems and devastate communities, especially those with low vaccination rates. A second scenario is less dire, outlining a smaller omicron surge in the spring. It’s unclear which is more likely.
The good news is that early data indicates that existing vaccines plus a booster shot are enough to combat the heavily mutated new pathogen. So far, officials and some pharmaceutical executives have signaled that they don’t favor a new vaccine tailored to omicron.
A new study out of South Africa, the first country to detect the variant, shows that omicron may cause less severe illness than other variants but may be more resistant to the to the two-dose Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Researchers for Discovery Health, South Africa’s largest health insurer, found that the risk of hospital admission among adults was 29 percent lower for omicron than for infections in the pandemic’s first wave. Vaccine effectiveness dropped, but vaccinated people were still well protected against hospitalization, according to the study.
Health advocates are ratcheting up pressure on the Biden administration to get more vaccines to the rest of the world. Some say President Biden should follow through on his pledge to get countries to share vaccine technologies, while others want the administration to reveal more of its plan to boost global vaccine manufacturing. The emergence of omicron, one group wrote to the White House, is a “cruel reminder that the world does not have the time to wait.”
Pfizer’s experimental pill to treat covid-19 continues to show promising results. A final analysis released by the company this week showed that Pfizer’s drug, Paxlovid, reduced hospitalizations and deaths by nearly 90 percent among people at high risk of severe illness because of age or underlying medical conditions. Early data shows it will remain effective against omicron.
With the White House’s vaccine mandate tied up in federal court, some companies are walking back their vaccine requirements. A group of health-care companies comprising 300 hospitals and 500,000 workers recently dropped their policies. Amtrak loosened its policy as well, saying the move was necessary to avoid service cuts.
Other important news
The Air Force discharged 27 service members for refusing to get the vaccines. This appears to be the first dismissals over the military’s vaccine orders. Meanwhile, five GOP governors have asked the Pentagon to drop requirements for the National Guard.
Virus cases are rising sharply in the NFL and NBA. Some of the sports’ top stars are sidelined.
With cases running high, the White House is cutting back on holiday festivities this year in favor of quieter gatherings.