Omicron, a highly contagious variant of the coronavirus that has swept across the country, is causing the daily death toll in the US to be higher than during last fall’s delta wave, with deaths likely to continue to rise for days or even weeks.
The seven-day moving average of daily new deaths from COVID-19 in the US has been rising since mid-November, reaching 2267 on Thursday and surpassing September’s peak of 2100 when the delta was the dominant variant.
Omicrons are now estimated to account for almost all of the virus circulating in the country. And while it causes less severe illness in most people, the fact that it is more contagious means more people get sick and die.
“Omicron will push us to more than a million deaths,” said Andrew Neumer, 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 prevented.”
Omicron’s symptoms are often milder, and some infected people don’t show symptoms, the researchers agree. But like the flu, it can be deadly, especially for the elderly, those with other health problems, or those who are unvaccinated.
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“It’s important to note that lighter doesn’t mean lighter,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told a White House briefing this week.
Until recently, Chuck Culotta was a healthy middle-aged man who ran a washing machine business in Milford, Delaware. When the omicron wave raged in the northeast, he felt the first symptoms before Christmas and tested positive on Christmas. He died less than a week later on December 31, nine days before his 51st birthday.
He was not vaccinated, his brother Todd said, because he had questions about the long-term effects of the vaccine.
“He just wasn’t sure he was going to do the right thing — not yet,” said Todd Culotta, who got his shots over the summer.
At one city hospital in Kansas, 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 a video from its mortuary showing bagged bodies in a refrigeration plant and a worker labeling one white body bag with the word “COVID”.
“That’s true,” said Ciara Wright, the hospital’s deceased affairs coordinator. “We are worried: “Will the funeral homes come fast enough?” We have access to a refrigerator. We don’t want to use it if it’s not necessary.”
Dr. Kathy Dennis, a pathologist who performs autopsies for the health care system, said the morgue was filled almost every day or more in January, “which is definitely unusual.”
More than 878,000 people have died in the United States, the highest number of COVID-19 casualties of any nation.
Nearly every US state will see a faster increase in deaths over the coming week, according to the COVID-19 Prediction Center, although several states have peaked in deaths, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Maryland, Alaska and Georgia.
According to the CDC, the number of new hospitalizations has begun to decline for all age groups, and a decline in deaths is expected to follow.
“In the pre-pandemic world, we see between 10,000 and 15,000 deaths in some influenza seasons. We see it throughout the week, sometimes with COVID,” said Nicholas Reich, who summarizes coronavirus forecasts for the center in collaboration with the CDC. .
“The loss, sadness and suffering is overwhelming and very humiliating,” 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 as part of a new government program to expand testing capacity. The government also said it has shipped tens of millions of masks to convenient locations across the country, including Friday delivery to community centers in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.
— National pharmacy chain Walgreens is among the pharmacies receiving government masks. The chain has begun offering N95 masks for free at 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 offer them soon.
— A leading state and local health organization has urged governments to end large-scale contact tracing, saying it is no longer necessary. The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials urged governments to focus contact tracing efforts on high-risk vulnerable populations such as people in homeless shelters and nursing homes.