Omicron begins declining in US although Covid deaths continue rising

By Eduard Ribas i Admetlla

Washington, Jan 26 (EFE).- Over the past few days, the US has begun to register the first decline in the number of new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations since the start of the Omicron variant wave last December, but the number of Covid deaths continues to rise and the White House on Wednesday issued a call for people not to let their guard down and to get vaccinated.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average daily number of newly-detected Covid cases over the past seven days was 692,400, 6 percent fewer than during the previous week, and hospital admissions were tallied at 19,800, 8 percent fewer.

This is the first time that a reversal in the Omicron wave has been seen in the US, the country with the highest number of Covid cases – 72.3 million to date – and deaths, more than 873,000, due to the pandemic, according to figures compiled by The Johns Hopkins University, even though the highly transmissible Omicron strain continues to set records in other countries in the Americas.

But the decline in new case numbers still has not translated into a drop in the daily death toll, with the average number of deaths per day over the past week in the US at 2,200, 21 percent higher than for the previous week, according to the CDC.

Scientists advising President Joe Biden have been forecasting that Omicron would have an explosive spread but also a rapid decline in the number of cases, just as was seen to occur in South Africa, where the strain was first detected.

Nevertheless, the White House feels that it is still far too early to declare victory over Omicron, given that the variant is much more contagious than earlier strains and, although it seems to cause more minor symptoms, the fact that the caseload is so much larger has still filled the country’s hospitals with seriously ill Covid patients to levels never seen since the pandemic first hit the US in early 2020.

“It’s vital that we all remain vigilant in the face of this virus,” said CDC director Dr. Rochelle Walensky at a Wednesday press conference. “I know many people are tired, but many of our hospitals are still struggling beyond capacity. It’s been a long two years. However, please now do your part to lean into this current moment.”

She went on to urge people to wear facemasks, get vaccinated and get a booster shot.

Vaccination is of special concern for health authorities in a country where fighting the pandemic has become so politicized and with a large portion of the population unwilling to accept that preventive measures like getting vaccinated or wearing a facemask will lessen their chances of becoming infected or experiencing serious illness.

CDC figures show that 63.5 percent of the US population has been fully vaccinated and 40.3 percent have received booster shots, which are available for everyone age 12 and older.

Vaccines are available so widely in the US that the government on Wednesday announced that to date it has donated 400 million doses to 112 countries, of the 1.1 billion doses it had promised to deliver to various nations over the course of a year.

In that regard, Walensky emphasized that people who have received a booster shot are 68 times less likely to die from Covid-19 than unvaccinated people.

In fact, the fatality figures during the Omicron wave have been remaining at the same levels as during the Delta wave last summer, despite the fact that the number of infections is now five times greater.

The US government’s pandemic response team believes that sooner or later “everyone” will become infected with Covid-19, but it is confident that the vaccines are starting to help the nation live with the virus in a way similar to how the country lives with the ever-morphing flu virus each year.

The top epidemiologist for the US government, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said that the aim is for the level of serious Covid disease to be low enough so that society can continue to function relatively normally.

To deal with the recent wave of cases, the largest since the pandemic hit, the US government has expanded the age groups who can receive booster shots, has set up a Web page where people can request free Covid test kits and has announced the free distribution of 400 million facemasks and the purchase of 20 million anti-viral pills.

But the administration has also been criticized for its health directives, which at times have been confusing and contradictory.

Given the absenteeism due to Covid among hospital personnel around the country, the CDC recommended in late December reducing the quarantine requirement for asymptomatic people from 10 days to five without the need to provide a negative Covid test to be allowed to end the isolation period, a move that was criticized by various physicians’ organizations.

The result would be that, although an asymptomatic person might still be infected with Covid, the period during which they are most infectious would have passed by the end of the five-day period.

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