Omicron will cause more infections but fewer hospitalizations, researchers say University of Washington research predicts the omicron wave will infect more than 400,000 people a day in the U.S. when it crests in about six weeks.

Omicron will cause more infections but lower hospital rates, analysis shows

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As Christmas approaches, pandemic researchers are becoming increasingly alarmed about a potentially devastating wave of omicron infections that will quickly sweep across the country. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now with the latest. Hi, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey there, Ailsa.

CHANG: So it seems like fears about omicron are intensifying, I mean, just as millions of people are traveling and gathering for the holidays. Can you just talk about what the projections look like right now?

STEIN: Yeah, sure. If you look at the trajectory of the outbreak in the U.S., you'll see the number of people catching the virus has been shooting almost straight up for at least a week as the omicron variant has taken hold. And a flurry of new research released today projects that breathtaking tsunami of infections could rapidly dwarf previous surges. Here's Julie Swann from the North Carolina State University. She runs one of five teams of pandemic modelers making projections for the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists.

JULIE SWANN: I've seen enough about omicron that I am worried that we could be getting into a situation that is really quite terrible. This could be the worst surge yet.

STEIN: Swann's group and another consortium of modellers advising the CDC are so worried that they released preliminary projections today as part of an urgent warning that the nation needs to act quickly before it's too late. Both warn the omicron wave could swamp the health care system. A third new analysis from the University of Washington released today projects the number of people catching the virus every day in the U.S. could top 400,000 by the end of January. That's far above the worst days of last winter's horrible surge.

CHANG: Wow. OK, all of this sounds really concerning. How bad are we talking exactly?

STEIN: Yeah, you know, it could get bad, but the big question is how sick will omicron make people?

CHANG: Right.

STEIN: Because omicron is so incredibly contagious, it seems inevitable that the number of people catching the virus could be mind-boggling. But some of the early indications are that omicron may not make people as sick as the delta variant. If that turns out to be true, then things won't get nearly as bad as they would have if, you know, it had made people as sick as delta. The University of Washington group estimates omicron is far less nasty - at least 90% less likely to send people to the hospital and at least 97% less likely to kill them. But there's still a lot of skepticism about those estimates. Another new estimate from the Imperial College London out today suggests omicron is maybe 15% to 45% less likely to make people so sick they need to be hospitalized. But the bottom line is, no one really knows yet how serious a threat omicron poses.

CHANG: Right. Well, the thing is a lot of hospitals are already overwhelmed now. So even if omicron is more benign, will hospitals be able to keep up?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. That's the big fear, that they won't. You know, even in the best-case scenario where omicron turns out to be milder, the lightning speed at which it's spreading means the number of people who are likely to catch it will be staggering. Dr. Anthony Fauci talked about this today at the White House briefing.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: Even if you have a diminution in severity, if you have a much larger number of individual cases, the fact that you have so many more cases might actually obviate the effect of it being less severe.

STEIN: Because lots of people will still get sick, overwhelming hospitals that already can't keep up in many places.

CHANG: Right. OK, Rob, is there anything to be optimistic about? I mean, help us out here.

STEIN: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, you know, because the omicron wave looks like it tends to hit so hard and so fast, the models indicate that it could pass pretty quickly, too, you know, like a fast-moving hurricane. And it looks like that could already be happening in South Africa, but, of course, the U.S. is a very different country than South Africa, and the chances are that the wave will hit different parts of the country at different times and with different intensities, depending on all sorts of things, like how many people are vaccinated and boosted and wearing masks and taking other precautions. So public health experts I talked to are pleading with people to, you know, do all those things because they really can make a huge difference.

CHANG: All right. That is NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you, Rob.

STEIN: Sure thing, Ailsa.

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