On average, the fast-moving omicron variant causes less severe disease, yet COVID-19 deaths in the United States are climbing, with modelers predicting that 50,000 to 300,000 additional Americans will die by the time the wave fades in mid-March.
Since mid-November, the seven-day rolling average for daily new COVID-19 deaths in the United States has been moving upwards, hitting roughly 1,700 on Jan. 17 – still well below the record of 3,300 in January 2021. COVID-19 mortality among nursing home residents began to rise slightly two weeks ago, but are still 10 times lower than last year, when most residents were not vaccinated.
Despite the fact that omicron appears to induce milder disease on average, the record volume of infection spreading across the country, with instances still on the rise in many areas, implies many vulnerable people will become extremely ill. If the higher end of the forecasts come true, total COVID-19 deaths in the United States will exceed 1 million by early spring.
“A lot of people are still going to die because of how transmissible omicron has been,” says University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi. “It unfortunately is going to get worse before it gets better.”
In Johnson County, Kansas, morgues are rapidly running out of space, according to Dr. Sanmi Areola, director of the health department. This year, more than 30 people have died in the county, the vast majority of them were unvaccinated.
However, health experts have found it difficult to convey the message that a less severe form may still kill thousands of people. It’s difficult to visualize the math – that a small percentage of a large number of diseases can result in a large number of deaths.
“Overall, you’re going to see more sick people even if you as an individual have a lower chance of being sick,” says Katriona Shea of Pennsylvania State University.
According to Shea, the surge of deaths en route to the United States will peak in late January or early February. Weekly deaths may equal or exceed the delta peak in early February, and may even surpass the previous year’s U.S. peak in deaths.
Some of these deaths are thought to be due to those infected with the delta strain, but specialists think omicron is also killing people.
“This is omicron driven,” Shea said of the coming wave of deaths.
Between mid-December and mid-March, the pooled models predict 1.5 million Americans will be hospitalized and 191,000 will die. Given the variability in the models, the number of people that died in the United States during the omicron wave could range from 58,000 to 305,000.
Nonetheless, it’s becoming obvious that omicron poses a lower risk than previous variants. According to new research from nearly 70,000 people in Southern California, omicron appears to cause less severe sickness than delta.
A recent White House briefing quoted a research that found patients receiving omicron had a 53 percent lower chance of hospitalization with respiratory symptoms, a 74 percent lower risk of ICU admission, and a 91 percent lower risk of death. The study, which hasn’t been peer-reviewed yet, was done by Kaiser Permanente and the University of California, Berkeley.
“It’s hard for me to say straight out it’s good news,” says study co-author Sara Y. Tartof, a Kaiser Permanente research scientist. “Maybe there’s good news in the sense that if you are infected your chance of becoming severely ill are decreased, but from a societal perspective it’s a very heavy burden for us. It remains a serious situation, and we need to maintain practices and behaviors we know protect us.”
Overburdened hospitals may also contribute to an increase in mortality, according to Marc Lipsitch of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and scientific director of the CDC’s forecasting unit.
“In places with extremely short staffing and overloads of patients, as the medical professionals have been telling us, the quality of care begins to suffer,” Lipsitch added.
“That may also lead to higher death rates, but that’s not in any of the models that I’m aware of.”
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