OPINION: This article contains commentary which may reflect the author's opinion
The Omicron variant’s impact on the nation’s skyrocketing Covid infections may have been grossly overstated by up to 50 percentage points after the CDC lowered its estimate for the prevalence of the strain in COVID-19 cases on Tuesday.
According to a revised chart released by the CDC on Tuesday, the new variant accounted for 23 percent of all cases for the week ending on December 18, compared with 73 percent for the original report. The agency did not explain how it made the mistake other than to say that it had gathered additional data.
As shown in the chart, the Omicron variant accounted for 59 percent of new cases for the week ending on December 25, indicating Delta infections are far more prevalent than initially thought, though Omicron infections are gaining ground rapidly.
‘There’s no way around it, it is a huge swing that makes it seem like something went really wrong,’ Dr. Shruti Gohil, the associate medical director for epidemiology and infection prevention at UC Irvine’s School of Medicine, said, speaking to NPR.
While the CDC made an astonishing mistake, data from the UK indicate that Omicron will soon account for nearly all new cases in the US.
According to the UK Health Security Agency, the new variant of Omicron was reported in 92 percent of all new cases in the four weeks leading up to December 27, several weeks ahead of the US.
To the confusion of many, the CDC corrected its error on the same day that the nation set a daily record for COVID-19 cases on Tuesday with 264,546 cases reported on a seven-day average, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
A previous record was reported on January 11, with about 247,503 cases daily in the country.
On Wednesday, the US hit a new record with 53,170,421 reported cases, a record for a single day, but inflated by Christmas weekend reporting delays.
New CDC data show that the most recent surge in cases is linked to the Delta variant, which is more severe and less contagious than Omicron.
Furthermore, it is unclear how the CDC could have reported such a drastic difference between the true prevalence of the strain and what they reported.
A spokeswoman for the CDC, Jasmine Reed, recognized the ‘wide predictive interval posted in last week’s chart,’ in reference to the huge difference between the week ending on December 18 and the ‘speed at which Omicron was increasing.’
‘CDC’s models have a range, and… we’re still seeing a steady increase in the proportion of Omicron,’ Reed told Fox News.
In Gohil’s view, there is ‘always a delay in the testing information that comes in, and that’s what the public should take away.’
She noted that health professionals had finally acquired a better understanding of the Delta variant and were learning how to test for it efficiently when the Omicron variant surged across the country.
‘The way in which we test and the way in which we have certitude about the numbers was all in flux right at that moment. Then along comes this new variant and now here you are trying to project something when you don’t have all of the mechanisms in place,’ she said.
The scant number of tests in the US may have contributed to the uncertainty in the data. According to data from Our World in Data, 22.3 COVID tests are performed per 1,000 people in the UK every day, five times more than the United States rate of 4.5.
There are also many gaps in surveillance efforts since only a tiny fraction of positive tests are actually sequenced for the variant strain to be determined.
According to Dr. Jerome Adams, the former surgeon general for the Trump Administration, the false Omicron numbers are also due to testing. Adams stated that as a result of the ‘S gene dropout,’ one of the three target genes is not detected, a sign of the Omicron variant.
‘A lot of people were seeing this S dropout on the tests even before they got the follow-up genetic testing, and so those samples were disproportionately more likely to be sent in for sequencing,’ He told Fox.
‘It’s also important for people to understand that in the grand scheme of things, they really were probably just a week or two ahead of what we’re going to see anyway because omicron is spreading so quickly that it is going to be 73% by the time you look at this week’s or next week’s numbers,’ Adams told Fox.
As reported by NPR, while the CDC reported 41% of cases to have been caused by the Delta variant in the week ending December 25, this figure could reach 58% given the agency’s margin of error.
Still, Gohil said, ‘The implication is that we have a lot of delta going on and that requires a lot more attention. People are thinking, ‘Oh, well, omicron’s not that bad.’ But it’s actually still too early to really know even that. Besides, Delta is the beast that you should be worried about.’
In addition, the latest CDC data will put a burden on hospitals who must adjust their treatment methods to account for the vast difference in Omicron and Delta infections, as each strain requires a different set of antibodies and medications.
‘The bottom line is, don’t take your masks off just yet and get vaccinated, vaccinated, vaccinated, vaccinated — and boosted,’ Gohil said to NPR.
The number of cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. has also doubled over the past two weeks. According to DailyMail.com’s analysis of Johns Hopkins data, 235,269 Americans have tested positive for the virus every day in the past week – a 98 percent increase from two weeks ago and approaching last January’s record of 247,503 cases.
Hospitalizations have increased nationwide 6 percent over the past two weeks, to 71,381, as well, though Omicron is thought to be less severe than Delta.
On Sunday, 1,374 patients, an 11-month high, were admitted to hospitals in the UK with Coronavirus infection, an increase of nearly 50 percent in the past week.
Hospitalization rates are soaring in several US states, including Louisiana, New Jersey, and Florida, where the number of patients has risen nearly 60 percent in two weeks. A record number of hospitalizations were also reported in Michigan, Vermont, Maine, and New Hampshire earlier this month.
‘January is going to be a really, really hard month. And people should just brace themselves for a month where lots of people are going to get infected,’ The dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, Dr. Ashish Jha, told CNN.
According to Jha, those who are not vaccinated will suffer the brunt of severe illness. However, those who are vaccinated and boosted are unlikely to need hospitalization.
‘A lot of people who have not gotten a vaccine are going to end up getting pretty sick, and it’s going to be pretty disruptive,’ he said.
‘My hope is as we get into February and certainly by the time we get into March, infection numbers will come way down, and it’ll also start getting (into) spring, and the weather will start getting better. And that will also help.’
On Monday, the CDC also made headlines by reducing quarantine requirements for asymptomatic COVID-19 patients by half, from 10 days to 5 days.
‘The reason is that with the sheer volume of new cases that we are having and that we expect to continue with Omicron, one of the things we want to be careful of is that we don’t have so many people out,’ Fauci explained in an interview with CNN on Tuesday.
‘Obviously, if you have symptoms, you should not be out. But if you are asymptomatic and you are infected, we want to get people back to their jobs. Particularly those with essential jobs, to keep our society running smoothly. So I think that was a very prudent and good choice on the part of the CDC.’
The new decision was not welcomed by all health experts. Jha criticized the CDC’s new rule in a separate interview with Good Morning America.
‘I actually think It would help a lot if we asked people to get a negative test as well,’ he said. ‘I don’t know why the CDC did not put that in, I suspect it might be because tests are still hard to come by.’
According to Dr. Paul Offit of the FDA vaccine advisory committee, the new rule makes sense in principle, but he is concerned that it will encourage a lax attitude toward isolation when symptoms arise.
‘It’s the honor system. You have to trust that people are truly asymptomatic,’ he said on the Today Show.
There is an acute shortage of COVID tests in the United States, with President Joe Biden admitting this week that current capacity is ‘clearly insufficient’ as he confronts criticism over his administration’s plan to offer 500 million free tests.
During the holiday weekend, many Americans stood in line for PCR tests or scoured store shelves for at-home rapid test kits in vain due to a national shortage, which may have fueled further transmission.
In addition, Anthony Fauci, the U.S. deputy director of infectious diseases, urged people to avoid crowded gatherings during New Year’s.
The rate of cases increased over the Christmas weekend, causing thousands of flights to be canceled as flight crews contracted the virus. Limited testing capacity and limited cruises slowed other plans as the more transmissible variant took hold.
U.S. airlines canceled more than 1,000 flights Monday, the fourth day of cancellations in a row. Shares of travel-related companies fell.
Governor Biden warned that a spike in cases would probably overwhelm some hospitals, spread out staff and equipment like ventilators, especially in areas where fewer people have been vaccinated.
Moreover, he declined to answer a reporter’s question about whether he supports a vaccine mandate for air travel within the United States, another step that officials have discussed.
Upon his departure from Washington for his home state of Delaware, Biden promised the governors he would work with them and offered any additional resources they needed. ‘They want to know what we think is going to happen,’ Biden said.
Vaccinated people can gather with their families on New Year’s Eve, but larger celebrations are riskier, according to officials.
‘When we are talking about a New Year’s Eve party … I would recommend strongly stay away from that this year. There will be other years to do that, but not this year,’ Fauci told CNN. ‘We really still need to be extremely careful,’ he told MSNBC separately.