SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
COVID-19 cases are increasing at an alarming rate across the United States. We know that the omicron variant of the coronavirus is very transmissible. We don't know yet if it causes less severe cases of COVID-19. NPR health policy correspondent Selena Simmons-Duffin joins us. Selena, thanks so much for being with us.
SELENA SIMMONS-DUFFIN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning, Scott.
SIMON: And as we speak now, where do things stand?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, there are a few really concerning signs that omicron is just starting to take off. New York state reported more than 21,000 COVID-19 cases just on Thursday. That's the highest daily total ever. I should say not all of those cases are omicron. Delta is still causing many infections. But if you look at what's happening in one hospital in Texas, Houston Methodist, they're sequencing the virus in their COVID-19 patients. And they say that omicron now accounts for 45% of all infections. They say that omicron is doubling every two to three days among their patients. We don't yet have good data for the national portion of COVID cases that are omicron. But the CDC director said yesterday it's been found in 39 states, and they expect it to become the dominant variant in a matter of weeks.
SIMON: What have we learned about this variant that might help us understand that spread?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, basically, it's really, really contagious. Data from the U.K. shows a person who's infected with the omicron is three times more likely to spread the virus to someone in their household than if they had the delta variant, which itself is very transmissible. We also know the vaccines are less protective against infection from omicron. Protection from two doses of the Pfizer vaccine drops from 80% to 30%, which is another reason why it's spreading so fast. So just the fact that this virus moves so fast may mean lots of disruptions to work and school and the economy if everyone gets sick basically at the same time. What's not yet clear is how severe those cases will be in the U.S. and what the surge will mean for hospitals and the already horrible death toll, which passed 800,000 just this week.
SIMON: Selena, what's the response of the federal government been?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Well, in a briefing yesterday, White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeffrey Zients laid out the administration's position in this moment.
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JEFFREY ZIENTS: We are intent on not letting omicron disrupt work and school for the vaccinated. You've done the right thing, and we will get through this. For the unvaccinated, you're looking at a winter of severe illness and death for yourselves, your families and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: So that's a pretty ominous warning. But there haven't been many policy changes announced by the White House. They have put in some new travel restrictions and recommended boosters for everyone over 18. But there's been no talk of adding testing or vaccination requirements for domestic travel, for instance, or advising policymakers and companies to require masks indoors. Only a handful of states have mask mandates right now. Some public health experts say they're not hearing a lot of urgency from policymakers to bring back or try new mitigation measures to try to keep the surge at bay.
SIMON: Selena, so much of this news sounds so discouraging, particularly this far into the pandemic. Is there a ray of light?
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Yeah, there really is a little bit of good news. Vaccines still seem to protect against severe disease and death, and boosters do offer strong protection against infection. So those are reasons to get your shots if you haven't done it yet.
SIMON: NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin, thanks so much.
SIMMONS-DUFFIN: Thank you.
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