Omicron Drives US Deaths Higher Than Fall Delta Wave

Omicron, the highly contagious variant of the coronavirus sweeping the country, is pushing the daily death toll in the United States higher than it was during last fall’s delta wave, with deaths likely to continue to increase for days or even weeks.

The seven-day rolling average of new daily COVID-19 deaths in the United States has risen since mid-November, hitting 2,267 on Thursday and surpassing a September peak of 2,100 when delta was the dominant variant.

Today, omicron is estimated to account for almost all of the viruses circulating in the country. And while it causes less severe disease for most people, the fact that it is more transmissible means more people are getting sick and dying.

“Omicron is going to push us to over a million deaths,” said Andrew Noymer, professor of public health at the University of California-Irvine. “It will cause a lot of soul-searching. There will be a lot of discussion about what we could have done differently, how many deaths could have been avoided.”

The average number of daily deaths is now at the same level as last February, when the country was slowly moving away from its all-time high of 3,300 a day.

More Americans are taking precautionary measures against the virus than before the omicron push, according to an AP-NORC poll this week. But many people, fatigued by the crisis, are returning to some level of normality in the hope that vaccinations or previous infections will protect them.

Symptoms of Omicron are often milder, and some infected people show none, researchers said. But like the flu, it can be deadly, especially for people who are old, have other health conditions, or aren’t vaccinated.

“It’s important to note that ‘softer’ does not mean ‘softer,'” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House briefing this week.

FILE – People line up outside a COVID-19 walk-in testing site, Dec. 5, 2021, in Cambridge, Mass. The rapidly progressing omicron variant may cause less severe disease on average, but COVID-19 deaths in the United States are climbing.

“He just wasn’t sure”

Until recently, Chuck Culotta was a healthy middle-aged man who ran a pressure washing business in Milford, Delaware. As the omicron wave ravaged the North East, he felt the first symptoms before Christmas and tested positive on Christmas Day. He died less than a week later, on December 31, nine days shy of his 51st birthday.

He was unvaccinated, said his brother, Todd, because he had questions about the long-term effects of the vaccine.

“He just wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do – yet,” said Todd Culotta, who received his shots over the summer.

At an urban Kansas hospital, 50 COVID-19 patients have died this month and more than 200 are being treated. The University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Kansas, released video from its morgue showing bodies bagged in a refrigeration unit and a worker marking a white body bag with the word “COVID.”

“It’s real,” said Ciara Wright, the hospital’s deceased affairs coordinator. “Our concerns are, ‘Are the funeral homes going to come fast enough?’ We have access to a refrigerated truck, we don’t want to use it if we don’t have to.

Dr Katie Dennis, a pathologist who does autopsies for the health system, said the morgue was at or above capacity almost every day in January, “which is definitely unusual”.

With more than 882,000 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, the United States has the highest COVID-19 toll of any country.

FILE - Visitors walk around a memorial for the victims of COVID-19 at the Griffith Observatory, Nov. 19, 2021, in Los Angeles.  The US death toll from COVID-19 had topped 882,000 by the end of Jan. 28, 2022, according to Johns Hopkins.

FILE – Visitors walk around a memorial for the victims of COVID-19 at the Griffith Observatory, Nov. 19, 2021, in Los Angeles. The US death toll from COVID-19 had topped 882,000 by the end of Jan. 28, 2022, according to Johns Hopkins.

Faster increases ahead

Over the coming week, nearly every US state will see a faster rise in deaths, although deaths have peaked in a few states, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Maryland, Alaska and Georgia, according to the COVID-19 Forecast Hub.

New hospital admissions have started to decline for all age groups, according to CDC data, and a decline in deaths is expected to follow.

“In a pre-pandemic world, during certain flu seasons, you see 10,000 or 15,000 deaths. You see that over the course of a week sometimes with COVID,” said Nicholas Reich, who aggregates coronavirus projections for the hub in collaboration with the CDC.

“The toll, the sadness and the suffering is staggering and very humbling,” said Reich, professor of biostatistics at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.

In other developments:

– The White House said Friday that about 60 million households have ordered 240 million home testing kits under a new government program to expand testing opportunities. The government also said it has shipped tens of millions of masks to convenient locations across the country, including Friday deliveries to community centers in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.

The national pharmacy chain Walgreens is among the pharmacies receiving the government-provided masks. The chain has started offering free N95 masks in several stores, while supplies last. The company’s website lists locations in the Midwest for the first wave of stores offering masks, but Walgreens said more stores will soon offer them.

– The leading organization of state and local public health officials has called on governments to stop conducting widespread contact tracing, saying it is no longer necessary. The Association of State and Territory Health Officials has urged governments to focus their contact tracing efforts on high-risk vulnerable populations, such as people in homeless shelters and nursing homes.

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