Scientists struggle to understand the competition between Omicron and Delta

As the pandemic’s third year dawns, Americans are feeling fatigued and confused. And it’s all Omicron’s fault.

Even scientists are deeply uncertain about how quickly or even whether the new variant will eclipse Delta, as well as who is likely to fall ill with which variant and how sick those people will become.

“It does feel like Omicron has changed everything we thought we knew” about the virus, said Dr. Megan Ranney, associate dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health. “This feels like a strange turning point, potentially, in the pandemic.”

Clues about the pandemic’s next phase have begun to emerge, but they have been conflicting and prone to error. Torrents of new data and statistics tumble out daily, but what they mean isn’t always clear. Some seem quite reassuring, others deeply alarming.

Meanwhile, decisions need to be made: Visit grandma in her nursing home? Attend that New Year’s gathering? Wait hours in line for a COVID test because you woke up with a scratchy throat? Send your kid back to college when she might be sent home in two weeks? Wear a mask … everywhere?

Here’s what we know about Omicron and the state of the pandemic — and what we don’t.

New infections

The United States has notched a new high in confirmed infections, with an average of 277,241 new cases a day for the last full week of 2021.

The previous record was 259,759, set early last January. A week later, daily COVID-19 deaths reached their zenith of 4,048, and for the next month that figure rarely fell below 2,000.

As worrisome as that history sounds, it is unlikely to repeat itself, because there are stark differences between then and now. Most importantly, the number of Americans who are fully vaccinated has gone from about 350,000 to more than 204 million, with 68 million of those having also received a booster shot.

Hospitalizations

Among people over 65, the vaccinated are six times less likely than the unvaccinated to be hospitalized for COVID-19. The difference is twice that for people 18 to 49.

The benefit of vaccines appears evident in the current surge. While hospitalizations climbed almost 20% in the week that ended Monday, hitting a daily average of 9,442, that figure is 43% below the peak nearly a year ago.

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