Dr. Anthony Fauci said Tuesday health officials’ earliest “inkling” about the omicron variant is that it appears to cause a less severe form of illness, but he cautioned it will take weeks to get the full picture across age groups and different global populations.
Dr. Fauci said anecdotal evidence, mainly from South Africa, suggests patients are seeing mild illness from the heavily mutated variant.
“It appears with the cases that are seen, we are not seeing a very severe profile of disease. In fact, it might be, and I underscore might, be less severe as shown by the ratio of hospitalizations per number of new cases,” said Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
He said the impact “could be influenced by the fact that many in this particular cohort are young individuals.”
”[But] the hospital stay seems to be less, and the use of supplemental oxygen seems to be less,” he told reporters. “Again, I caution you, these are still preliminary.”
The doctor said omicron, first detected last month, produced a clear surge in cases in South Africa. The nation recorded 266 cases on Nov. 6, and 10,628 on Dec. 6.
He said the rate of new cases points to “a high degree of transmissibility.”
Scientists are using live viruses and “pseudovirus” mockups to determine whether omicron can puncture through the vaccines’ defenses. Dr. Fauci said labs should start to spit out results by the middle of next week.
Also, Dr. Fauci warned there are early signs that South Africans who were previously infected by other variants were reinfected by omicron.
The White House and other officials say the omicron threat, combined with holiday gatherings and the cold winter, put the nation at a pivotal point in the pandemic fight.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a sweeping mandate that requires all private-sector employees who report to a worksite or office to get vaccinated. He is also forcing children ages 5-11 to show proof of at least one dose of a vaccine to enter social venues like indoor restaurants and performance halls.
“This kind of triple threat – omicron, winter, and holiday gatherings – this is coming on fast,” the mayor told the “Inside City Hall” program on Spectrum News NY1. “So, we want to get those youth vaccination numbers up. We want to get seniors especially, but everyone with those boosters. And we want to extend to anyone who has gotten the first dose. And we think the mandates really help us on that level.”
Reported infections in the U.S. are averaging about 120,000 per day, a 28% spike from two weeks ago but better than the nearly 200,000 per day reported this time last year.
Nearly 60,000 people in the U.S. are hospitalized for COVID-19, up 18% from two weeks ago but better than the 107,000 hospitalized a year ago.
Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said 99% of U.S. cases continue to be from the delta variant, as scientists wait to see if omicron crowds it out.
Omicron has been detected in 50 countries and 19 U.S. states, and “we expect that number to increase,” Dr. Walensky said.
White House COVID-19 Coordinator Jeff Zients said vaccines remain the best line of defense against the virus in all its forms. He said the U.S. delivered 12.5 million shots into arms last week as more people get boosted or come forward because of fears around omicron.
“That’s the highest weekly total of shots since May,” Mr. Zients said. He said 7 million of those shots were boosters.