As COVID deaths top 800,000, Omicron and Delta variants threaten another U.S. surge

December 15, 2021, 11:04 PM UTC

In a week in which the U.S. reached another grim COVID milestone—800,000 lives lost to the virus—public health officials are bracing themselves for the pandemic’s next phase. While new COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are all on the rise nationally, largely owing to the long dominant Delta strain, cases attributed to the even more transmissible Omicron virus have risen sharply in the past week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and seem likely to complicate the overall picture.

While much is yet to be learned about the new Omicron variant, which has so far been identified in 35 states and more than 70 countries, preliminary evidence suggests the strain is less likely to cause severe disease and that vaccinated individuals, especially if they’ve had a booster dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, have some protection from the variant. For that reason, Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said today that an Omicron-specific vaccine is not necessary.

Currently, the CDC classifies community transmission of the virus as “high” in 80% of U.S. counties. Nationally, the average number of new coronavirus cases reported each day has risen 46% in the past two weeks, to roughly 122,000 per day, according to New York Times data. States with the biggest gain in new cases in that period are Connecticut (up 196%) and Maine (up 168%).

In the U.S., 16.6% of the population have received a COVID booster dose according to Our World in Data, which collects information from local governments. That amounts to about 55 million Americans, or 27.2% of the fully vaccinated population, according to the CDC. Roughly 52% of fully vaccinated seniors, the age group most vulnerable to severe disease from COVID, had gotten their booster shot. In total, 202.5 million Americans, or 61% of the total population, are fully vaccinated with two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or the Johnson & Johnson shot.

Globally, the U.K., which today reported its highest daily number of new coronavirus cases yet, leads in terms of the share of population that has received a booster dose, with 35.3% of individuals having received one. In Germany, France, and Italy, more than one-fifth of their populations have gotten a third vaccine dose.

Europe continues to be the world’s current COVID hotspot, with the U.K. and France reporting the largest number of infections per capita (over 700 per million people). In the past week, South Africa, where the Omicron variant was first identified, and the U.S. have averaged about half that number.

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