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The Good and Bad News on Omicron

Nation’s hospitals are strained treating COVID-19 this winter, but early reports indicate milder illness, shorter hospital stays

January 12, 2022

New data on the severity of the Omicron variant indicates that it leads to milder illness than previous variants, but a “staggering” COVID-19 caseload continues to challenge the nation’s hospitals.

On Wednesday, the White House’s COVID-19 Response Team provided its weekly media update outlining the state of the pandemic. The nation’s public health leaders said Omicron is leading to nearly a million daily cases across the U.S. but there are encouraging signs when it comes to length of hospital stays and mortality rates.

A new study of 70,000 patients in California indicated Omicron was associated with substantially lower risk for severe clinical outcomes compared to the Delta variant (53% reduction in adjusted risk for hospitalization, 74% reduction for ICU admission, and 91% reduction for death).

The potential good news on Omicron’s severity comes with an important caveat, as Pennsylvania and the nation see record case counts and hospitalizations. In Pennsylvania, there were 7,215 adults hospitalized with COVID-19, including 1,103 patients in the ICU and 681 on ventilators. On Friday, the commonwealth reported more than 33,000 cases.

“The sudden and steep rise in cases due to Omicron is resulting in unprecedented daily case counts, sickness, absenteeism, and strains on our health care system,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, CDC director. 

Among the key takeaways from the briefing:

  • COVID-19 case counts, hospitalizations, deaths:  The nation is averaging about 751,000 cases per day, an increase of 47 percent over the previous week. Hospital admissions are up to about 19,800 per day, a 33 percent increase from the prior-week average. Deaths have increased to about 1,600 per day, a 40 percent increase
  • Omicron:  The variant represents about 98 percent of sequenced cases in the U.S. The California study indicated the duration of hospital stays due to the variant were 70 percent shorter compared to those hospitalized with Delta variant (median stays, 1.5 days, Omicron; 5 days, Delta)
  • Treatments:  The nation has a considerable “Omicron medicine cabinet” across the entire spectrum of care. Prioritization of outpatient treatment is based on patients’ risk factors for severe disease
  • In-person school:  The White House plans to provide ten million tests (rapid and lab-based tests) each month to ensure schools can stay in-person

“As we see hospitals and health systems caring for more and more patients in the midst of staffing challenges and faced with a highly transmissible virus that does not spare our health care workers, all of us must do our part to protect our hospitals and our neighbors and reduce the further spread of this virus,” Dr. Walensky said.

HAP encourages everyone who is eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine or booster to make an appointment in their community.

A replay of the briefing is available online.