Europe gives US gloomy portrait of what's to come with omicron

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·5 min read
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  • Anthony Fauci
    Anthony Fauci
    American immunologist and head of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
  • Michael Osterholm
    Michael Osterholm
    American epidemiologist


As the omicron variant batters Europe with exponentially skyrocketing COVID-19 cases, public health experts warn that the U.S. could be barreling down the same path and face record waves of infections in the coming days and weeks.

Due to the strain's high transmissibility, top infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci predicted omicron will be the dominant variant in the U.S. in "a few weeks" with the potential to overwhelm hospital systems already strained by delta cases.

With a lot still unknown about the new variant of concern, including how severe its disease is, scientists are awaiting more data on the strain and international surges to better anticipate how hard omicron will hit the U.S.

But several experts said data is signaling the country is heading for a rough next few weeks coinciding with the holiday season, with Michael Osterholm, the director for the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. He called it "a perfect storm in all regards."

"We're going to end up in a viral blizzard here in this country in the next three to eight weeks," the former Biden adviser told The Hill.

"I can't remember anything in my 46-year career that is reminiscent of what I'm certain is gonna happen here," he added.

South Africa originally alerted the world to the strain in late November before enduring a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases surpassing a seven-day average of 25,000 new cases this week - the highest throughout the pandemic.

Since its discovery, at least 39 states and 75 countries have detected the highly transmissible strain, indicating a looming global surge.

European countries, in particular, have been pummeled with infections, with nations such as the United Kingdom and Denmark seeing sudden hikes in cases. Both countries also broke records for their seven-day daily case averages this week, according to Our World in Data.

"If things go in the United States the way they've gone in other countries - and there's no reason to believe that that won't be the case - it will soon become dominant here," Fauci said at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation event.

"Besides the toll of suffering and death - which will inevitably go up if in fact we have that convergence in the winter months of flu and omicron and delta - we could get our hospital systems overwhelmed," he added.

Scientists are struck in particular by the rapid transmissibility of the omicron variant in other countries, as the strain's rate is estimated to be two to three times faster than that of the delta variant.

Already, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the omicron strain makes up 3 percent of cases across the country. That number rises to about 13 percent in states such as New Jersey and New York.

Christopher Murray, the director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, said once omicron makes up 1 percent of cases in a country, it is expected to overtake delta in about two weeks.

Based on his team's modeling, he expects omicron to become dominant in some states before the end of the year, with the rest of states following in January.

"It's going to be very transmissible, so therefore indoor gatherings at the holidays are certainly gonna fuel that transmission," he said.

The biggest unknown among experts is whether the omicron strain causes milder disease than the delta strain, as first suggested by early data from South Africa.

"The reduction in severity is going to be a critical question in terms of impact in the U.S.," Murray said. "Are hospitals gonna be overwhelmed, or are we gonna see a big surge in death?"

Even if the disease ends up milder, experts have warned high transmissibility alone could overwhelm hospitals with the amount of people needing care.

While scientists don't know exactly what will happen in the U.S., Matthew Ferrari, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Penn State University, said there's a "meaningfully good chance" cases will climb "very rapidly" in the next four to eight weeks.

"We should be preparing in advance of that happening to mitigate that outcome rather than wait," he said. "Because if we wait to find out that it really will happen, then with a doubling time that fast, it's just too late to implement reactive strategies, or the reactive strategies that we're gonna have to implement are gonna be so draconian. And they're gonna look like spring of 2020."

Ferrari, who's also a professor of biology, said there's enough evidence already to take action, including beefing up hospital staffing and resources, ahead of any possible omicron wave.

"We'll get more clarity over the next two, three weeks or so, but I think we have enough information now really to make a strong case for investing in preparing for this wave," he said.

Focusing on getting more people vaccinated and boosted is key to preventing the worst of the omicron surge, experts said.

Still, Edwin Michael, a professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida, cautioned there's still a lot of uncertainty, including on exactly when it arrived in the U.S. and how waning immunity in general could play a role in the wave.

"We need to wait on the data for the next three weeks or so to tell us which paths are the more probable," he said.

Data from other countries also won't definitively predict what will happen in the U.S., as the numbers are ultimately "unique" to the populations there, he said, noting South Africa's younger population and the U.K.'s more vaccinated population.

In a sign of how uncertain everything is, Michael said his team's model says the omicron variant won't overtake delta until the spring, with delta fueling an immediate uptick, but he also acknowledged it could be "completely wrong."

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