Studies suggest omicron COVID variant more mild, contagious: Updates

December 23, 2021
People wait to get tested for COVID-19 at a pop-up testing site in Los Angeles on Monday.
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A disorienting torrent of new information about the omicron coronavirus variant continues to flow as Americans finalize their holiday plans — traditions that once again will have profound public health consequences.

Some news appears ominous, including a new projection suggesting about half of the nation can expect to catch the variant in the next few months. That’s an unprecedented number of cases, a number that once would have been expected to result in untold suffering.

But the projection can also be grouped in with a growing scientific consensus that an omicron infection appears to be less risky than catching a previous variant. Scientists are still sorting out the role of vaccines, prior infection, demographics and the virus’ many mutations in this trend.

“In the past, we roughly thought that COVID was 10 times worse than flu and now we have a variant that is probably at least 10 times less severe,” Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation director Dr. Chris Murray said Wednesday. “So, omicron will probably … be less severe than flu but much more transmissible.”

Meanwhile, two British studies added more evidence to the theory that omicron is milder than delta.

But on Wednesday, Dr. Anthony Fauci cautioned that celebrating the spread of a likely less-severe version of COVID-19 is premature: “You can’t count on anything when you’re dealing with a virus that has fooled us so many times before,” Fauci said.

Huge numbers of infections could still overwhelm hospitals, even if most are mild. And the danger likely remains higher for the unvaccinated.

Experts continue to stress proven strategies for slowing the spread of the virus, especially over the holidays: Getting vaccinated (or boosted), wearing a mask indoors, avoiding large indoor gatherings (especially if unvaccinated people may be in attendance) and taking a rapid test before a gathering (if you can find one).

Also in the news:

► President Joe Biden tested negative for COVID-19 on Wednesday after coming into contact last week with a White House aide who has since tested positive for the virus. 

► Three passengers and 47 crew members have tested positive for COVID-19 on Royal Caribbean’s Odyssey of the Seas cruise ship, which departed Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Saturday for an eight-night Caribbean trip.

► John Parney, 62, who defied state orders and kept his restaurant open last year during the pandemic in southern Michigan, partly to pay medical bills, has died of complications from COVID-19.

►Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez is convening a special Cabinet meeting Thursday to pass a law by decree that makes it mandatory to wear masks outdoors, amid a record surge in COVID-19 cases.

📈Today’s numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 51.5 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 812,00 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 277 million cases and 5.3 million deaths. More than 204.8 million Americans – 61.7% –  are fully vaccinated, according to the CDC

📘 What we’re reading: Omicron has dealt yet another blow to schools that have already weathered COVID-19 disruptions, student misbehavior and staffing shortages this fall. “The overall feeling is one of exhaustion,” says one superintendent. Read the full story.

Keep refreshing this page for the latest news. Want more? Sign up for USA TODAY’s free Coronavirus Watch newsletter to receive updates directly to your inbox and join our Facebook group.

Supreme Court to hear arguments in challenges to Biden vaccine-or-testing mandates

The Supreme Court announced Wednesday it will hear oral arguments in a number of challenges to President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine-or-testing requirements for large employers and health care facilities. 

The high court was already considering several appeals about those requirements on an emergency basis – which rarely involve oral arguments – but the court announced it would take a more formal approach to the cases and scheduled arguments for Jan. 7.

The justices deferred action on the challenges until after then. 

While largely a procedural move, the development signaled the nation’s highest court may be prepared to wade into the thorny issue of vaccine mandates for the first time during the coronavirus pandemic. The court has turned away challenges to other such regulations in Indiana, Maine and New York, allowing state or local vaccine mandates to remain in effect.

— John Fritze, USA TODAY

Ohio to add help for hospitals after breaking daily case record

Ohio laid out more details Wednesday about its strategy to combat the surge of COVID-19 patients that understaffed hospitals are facing after reporting a record daily high in the number of new COVID-19 cases Tuesday: 12,502. The state broke it again Wednesday reporting 12,864 new cases. 

Hospitalizations are also reaching levels not seen since last winter’s surge when vaccines were just becoming available. As of Tuesday, there were 4,797 Ohioans in the hospital for the virus – one in four patients at Ohio hospitals.

The situation has gotten to the point that Gov. Mike DeWine announced he would send 1,050 Ohio National Guard members to assist hospitals to handle the influx of patients. Facilities are understaffed as workers leave the profession, many of whom are worn out by the pandemic. DeWine also said Ohio was working with a company to bring in nurses from out of state.

— Titus Wu, Akron Beacon Journal

Contributing: The Associated Press

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