Top US pandemic adviser Anthony Fauci has warned of a bleak winter ahead as the Omicron coronavirus variant spurs a new wave of infections globally, sparking restrictions and concerns over hospital capacity.
“One thing that’s very clear … is [Omicron’s] extraordinary capability of spreading,” Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told broadcaster NBC News on Sunday. “It is just … raging through the world.”
Since it was first reported in southern Africa in November, Omicron has been identified in dozens of countries, prompting many to reimpose travel restrictions and other measures in an attempt to slow outbreaks.
Despite some preliminary indications Omicron is not more severe than the Delta variant – currently, still the dominant strain – the heavily mutated Omicron has been shown in early data to have some resistance to vaccines and higher transmissibility.
Fauci also cautioned against too much optimism over Omicron’s severity, noting that in South Africa, while the hospitalisation-to-case ratio is lower than with Delta, this could be due to underlying immunity from widespread previous infections.
“No matter how you look at it,” he said, “when you have so many, many infections, even if it is less severe, that overcomes this slight to moderate diminution in severity.”
“Our hospitals, if things look like they’re looking now in the next week or two, are going to be very stressed,” particularly in areas of the country with low levels of vaccination, Fauci said.
On Sunday, US senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker each said separately on Twitter that they had tested positive for COVID-19 despite being vaccinated and boosted, and were experiencing mild symptoms.
Warren, 72, said on Twitter she was “grateful for the protection provided against serious illness that comes from being vaccinated and boosted.”
“I urge everyone who has not already done so to get the vaccine and the booster as soon as possible,” she said.
I regularly test for COVID & while I tested negative earlier this week, today I tested positive with a breakthrough case. Thankfully, I am only experiencing mild symptoms & am grateful for the protection provided against serious illness that comes from being vaccinated & boosted.
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) December 19, 2021
Neither of the senators indicated whether they had been infected with Omicron.
Fauci urged unvaccinated Americans to get a shot and the vaccinated to get boosters, which have been shown to give addded protection.
‘Tough few weeks to months’
The administration of President Joe Biden, who is due to address the nation on pandemic developments on Tuesday, has been campaigning hard for vaccination.
While a little more than 70 percent of the US population has had at least one shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, another 50 million eligible people remain unprotected, Fauci said.
“With Omicron … it is going to be a tough few weeks to months as we get deeper into the winter,” he added.
Meanwhile, Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, told CBS’s Face the Nation show that the number of Omicron cases in the US will rise steeply in the next two weeks.
“A big message for today is if you’ve had vaccines and a booster, you’re very well protected against Omicron causing you severe disease. So, anybody listening to this who’s in that 60 percent of Americans who are eligible for a booster but haven’t yet gotten one: This is the week to do it. Do not wait,” he said.
Omicron now accounts for approximately three percent of cases in the US, a figure that is expected to rise rapidly as has been seen in other countries.
On Saturday, New York state announced a record number of daily cases for the second day in a row, with almost 22,000 positive results.
More than half of the state’s new cases recorded on Saturday were in New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio called for the country to “go on a war footing” to fight the Omicron variant with more vaccinations. He said the city would spend $10m on an advertising campaign to promote booster shots.
The United States has recorded the highest number of confirmed coronavirus-related deaths in the world, crossing 800,000 known COVID-19 deaths last week, according to a Johns Hopkins University tracker.