'Americans seem to have become numb to Delta': Omicron is coming, but older variant is still driving infections

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WASHINGTON — The Omicron variant of the coronavirus has dominated the news since its discovery in southern Africa was announced last week, but it is the Delta variant — which has been in the United States for months — that is still unilaterally driving the current increase in infection rates in parts of the country.

The disconnect presents public health officials with a new challenge: warning Americans about a new strain of the coronavirus while reminding them that an older strain is showing clear signs of resurgence.

"I know that the news is focused on Omicron, but we should remember that 99.9 percent of cases in the country right now are from the Delta variant. Delta continues to drive cases across the country, especially in those who are unvaccinated,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at a Friday briefing of the White House pandemic response team.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee about the response to the COVID-19 on Capitol Hill on Nov. 4.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on Nov. 4 about the response to COVID-19. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

She and others have continued to issue reminders that vaccination — especially when accompanied by a booster shot — is the best way to protect against any and all variants of the coronavirus.

“Although we haven't proven it yet, there's every reason to believe that if you get vaccinated and boosted, that you would have at least some degree of cross-protection — very likely against severe disease — even against the Omicron variant,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top medical adviser to President Biden, said during Friday’s briefing.

A handful of Omicron cases have been found in the United States, while Delta cases number in the millions. A Delta surge killed thousands across the Southeast in August and September and appears to be resurgent as people move indoors across much of the country.

“All the news is about Omicron,” lamented Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Research Translational Science Institute, on Twitter. “As if a major 2nd surge with Delta wasn’t happening.”

Nationally, evidence of that second surge is clear. Infection rates are rising, with more than 80,000 new cases per day, according to data from the CDC. More than 50,000 people are in hospitals with COVID-19 each day, and about 1,000 people are dying daily from the disease.

Those statistics are especially concerning to public health officials, since vaccination makes most infections either mild or asymptomatic. They suggest that Delta continues to find pockets of unvaccinated people, even in states like Vermont, where vaccination rates are high.

Two New Mexico hospitals were operating at 120 percent capacity this week thanks to the Delta variant, while Michigan announced it had more than 4,000 COVID-19 patients in its hospitals. Minnesota, Wisconsin and other states in the Upper Midwest are seeing similar spikes.

Delkhah Shahin, a doctor, checks on a 34-year-old, unvaccinated, COVID-19 patient at Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center in Tarzana, Calif., in September.
Dr. Delkhah Shahin checks on an unvaccinated COVID-19 patient at Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center in Tarzana, Calif., in September. (Apu Gomes/AFP via Getty Images)

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a disaster emergency last Friday, on the day the World Health Organization declared Omicron a “variant of concern.” The declaration, which sought to prepare hospital beds for a surge by canceling some medical procedures, appeared to anticipate Omicron, but was in fact intended to target Delta.

“New York is now experiencing COVID-19 transmission at rates the State has not seen since April 2020,” Hochul’s declaration read.

The advent of the new variant has given rise to intense speculation about whether it is more transmissible, more contagious and more likely to circumvent the protection of vaccines. It could be weeks before researchers have definitive answers to those questions.

For now, Delta remains the more pressing concern. “It's true that Delta still constitutes 99.9 percent of all variants isolated in the U.S. However, it is also true that Americans seem to have become numb to Delta,” Dr. Leana Wen, the former Baltimore health commissioner and, more recently, the author of "Lifelines: A Doctor's Journey in the Fight for Public Health," told Yahoo News.

“I hope Omicron will make them pay attention to the threat that COVID still plays in our daily lives,” she added.