Omicron so contagious most Americans will get Covid, top US health officials say
Federal health authorities in America have said the Omicron Covid-19 variant is so contagious it is likely most people in the US will be infected, and compared the pandemic to a “natural disaster”.
Authorities said even as Omicron shatters records for new cases, they are hopeful the surge will quickly subside, and said the US needs to focus on ensuring hospital systems do not collapse amid the surge.
“I think it’s hard to process what’s actually happening right now, which is [that] most people are going to get Covid, all right?” said Janet Woodcock, the acting head of the Food and Drug Administration. “What we need to do is make sure the hospitals can still function … [that] transportation, other essential services are not disrupted while this happens.”
Woodcock made the comments at a Senate hearing where senators, especially Republicans, harshly questioned administration officials tasked with responding to the pandemic, including Woodcock, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Rochelle Walensky, and the president’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci.
With several major mutations, the Omicron variant has spread rapidly around the globe and shattered records for new daily cases in the US. The CDC reports that the variant is now responsible for more than 98% of Covid-19 cases in the US, replacing Delta in less than a month.
At the same time, the variant is believed to be less lethal than previous strains and there is some evidence it may quickly peak.
However, even as Omicron sends fewer patients to the hospital as a proportion of total cases, the deluge of cases has put hospitals, schools and businesses under strain – filling up beds, causing staff shortages and prompting a return to remote activities.
An average of more than 761,000 Americans a day tested positive for Covid-19 on Tuesday, the day of the hearing, according to the New York Times. Even this tally is known to be a vast undercount, because few people report the positive results of at-home rapid tests to health authorities.
On the same day the previous year, also the peak of a winter surge, an average of 251,232 people tested positive for Covid-19.
Even as Omicron stresses essential systems, severe illness is not inevitable, and health authorities stressed the importance of vaccination to reduce the likelihood of severe illness. The CDC is also considering a recommendation for Americans to wear N95 and KN95 masks, rather than cloth ones, if possible.
Fauci later echoed Woodcock’s comments, that most Americans are likely to be infected with the variant, at the Centers for Strategic and International Studies, a thinktank in Washington. He added that comparatively few vaccinated and boosted Americans will face hospitalization and death.
“Omicron, with its extraordinary, unprecedented degree of efficiency of transmissibility, will ultimately find just about everybody,” Fauci told J Stephen Morrison, senior vice-president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, CNN reported.
“Those who have been vaccinated … and boosted would get exposed. Some, maybe a lot of them, will get infected but will very likely, with some exceptions, do reasonably well in the sense of not having hospitalization and death,” he said. People who have not been vaccinated are far more likely to, “get the brunt of the severe aspect of this”.