By LAURA UNGAR and CARLA K. JOHNSON
The new omicron coronavirus mutant speeding around the world may bring another wave of chaos, threatening to further stretch hospital workers already struggling with a surge of delta cases and upend holiday plans for the second year in a row.
The White House on Wednesday insisted there was no need for a lockdown because vaccines are widely available and appear to offer protection against the worst consequences of the virus. But even if omicron proves milder on the whole than delta, it may disarm some of the lifesaving tools available and put immune-compromised and elderly people at particular risk as it begins a rapid assault on the United States.
“Our delta surge is ongoing and, in fact, accelerating. And on top of that, we’re going to add an omicron surge,” said Dr. Jacob Lemieux, who monitors variants for a research collaboration led by Harvard Medical School.
“That’s alarming, because our hospitals are already filling up. Staff are fatigued,” leaving limited capacity for a potential crush of COVID-19 cases “from an omicron wave superimposed on a delta surge.”
Most likely, he and other experts said at a news briefing Tuesday, an omicron surge is already under way in the United States, with the latest mutant coronavirus outpacing the nation’s ability to track it.
Based on specimens collected last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said omicron accounted for about 3% of genetically-sequenced coronaviruses nationally. Percentages vary by region, with the highest — 13% — in the New York/New Jersey area.
But Harvard experts said these are likely underestimates because omicron is moving so fast that surveillance attempts can’t keep up.
Globally, more than 75 countries have reported confirmed cases of omicron. In the United States, 36 states have detected the variant. Meanwhile, delta is surging in many places, with hot spots in New England and the upper Midwest. The five states with the highest two-week rolling average of cases per 100,000 people are New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Michigan, Minnesota and Vermont.
Universities are abruptly closing classrooms during finals week with infections multiplying at a fast rate. Both the NBA and NHL have had to postpone games, and the NFL had its worst two-day outbreak since the start of the pandemic, with dozens of players infected.
Outside the U.S., the president of the European Union said omicron will become the dominant variant in a month and declared that “once again, this Christmas will be overshadowed by the pandemic.”
Scientists around the world are racing to understand omicron, which has a large number of worrisome mutations in important regions of its genetic structure that could affect how it spreads from person to person. How quickly the number of cases doubles, known as “doubling time,” can give a preview of what the disease burden could be in a few weeks.