WASHINGTON — Federal health officials stressed on Wednesday that data on skyrocketing coronavirus cases in the United States and from other countries reinforced early signs that the highly contagious Omicron variant was milder and less lethal than previous variants, even as it already threatened to overwhelm health systems. on the verge of previous peaks.
Their comments at a White House press conference reflected a growing urgency in the administration to reassure Americans fearful of another winter of isolation as they rush to respond to worsening outbreaks across the country.
dr. Rochelle P. Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that as cases increased by about 60 percent in the past week to about 240,000 a day, hospitalizations and deaths had remained “relatively low,” suggesting a less deadly wave of the virus.
She pointed to a seven-day average of 9,000 hospitalizations per day, an increase of about 14 percent from the previous week. The seven-day average of daily deaths was about 1,100 per day, she added, down about 7 percent.
“This could be due to the fact that hospital admissions tend to be about two weeks behind cases,” she said, “but could also be due to early indications we’ve seen from other countries like South Africa.” and the UK of milder Omicron disease, especially among the vaccinated and the boosted.”
dr. Anthony S. Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Biden, said at the same news conference that “the pattern and disparity between cases and hospitalization strongly suggest that there will be a lower hospitalization-to-case ratio as the situation becomes clearer. ”
A report this week from a hospital in South Africa, said Dr. Fauci, showed significantly fewer patients requiring supplemental oxygen, fewer intensive care admissions, and fewer deaths. A study in the United Kingdom that examined patients through Dec. 19 showed a much lower risk of hospitalization with Omicron compared to those infected with the Delta variant, data that supported a separate Scottish study, he said.
The more hopeful data on the spread of Omicron has been dampened by a large number of virus cases in hospitals across the country, where burnt out health workers have screamed for help as most unvaccinated patients overwhelm emergency rooms and intensive care units.
Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House’s Covid-19 response coordinator, said 13,000 National Guard members in 48 states assisted with vaccinations, testing and clinical work. The federal government has sent ambulances to states in need, he added, including to hard-hit New York, where dozens of Federal Emergency Management Agency employees helped the effort. Reinforcements had arrived in or were en route to Arizona, Wisconsin and Indiana, Mr. Zients said.
More federally-run testing sites would open in the coming days, said Mr. Zients, also in Philadelphia and Washington, DC. in the United States. Demand for tests has exploded this month, prompting manufacturers to rush to produce and distribute more.
The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday approved a home test made by Siemens Healthineers, through a new accelerated review program, the Department of Health and Human Services said. And the Department of Defense awarded a $136.7 million contract to MilliporeSigma, which produces a key ingredient in rapid tests. The contract will enable a Wisconsin facility to “support more than 83.3 million tests per month,” the department said.
Mr Zients said a contract that would enable the government to provide 500 million rapid tests for free would be completed by the end of next week. Deliveries from manufacturers are expected to start in January.
dr. Fauci said the levels of mild infection suggested the United States should transition to a comfortable life with some level of controlled spread of the virus. “This is a very, very transmissible virus. We know that from the numbers we see,” he said. “Every individual in this country now sees the high level of transferability around them.”
He said that while it was safe for vaccinated people to gather in small groups with family and friends over New Year’s weekend, Americans should be careful about hosting traditional indoor parties.
“If your plans are to go to a 40 or 50-person New Year’s Eve party with all the bells and whistles and everyone hugging and kissing and wishing each other a Happy New Year, then I strongly suggest you don’t do it this year. that,” he said.
But he said public health policies should gradually reflect more social and financial concerns.
“The seriousness of the impact on society is becoming much more relevant. We will never stop counting tests,” he said. “But we’re looking forward, as I think everyone thinks it’s appropriate, that eventually, when we’re going to have to quote, we’re ‘living’ with something that won’t be eradicated and most likely won’t be eliminated, but can actually be like this.” a lower level of control, namely a control that does not disrupt society, does not disrupt the economy.”
The CDC nodded at that idea Monday when it cut the recommended isolation period for many infected Americans by half, even if they haven’t been tested, a move criticized by some scientists and public health experts as premature. dr. Walensky said in a Tuesday interview with The Times that rapid tests were not effective enough to diagnose infectiousness in humans.
“You don’t necessarily have to take a test if you don’t know what you’re going to do with the result,” she said. “The expected number of cases we saw required us to take action at this point.”
dr. Walensky continued to defend the new recommendations on Wednesday, saying at the White House press conference that “the vast majority” of transmission of the virus occurred two days before symptoms and two to three days after. “Any of that lingering small amount of transmission afterward would be prevented by masking,” she said. “We’re standing on the shoulders of two years of science, two years of understanding transferability.”