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New coronavirus cases in U.S. soar to highest levels on record

People are tested for coronavirus at a walk-up testing site
People are tested for the coronavirus at a walk-up testing site Tuesday in Miami.
(Rebecca Blackwell / Associated Press)

More than a year after a vaccine was rolled out, new coronavirus cases in the U.S. have soared to the highest level on record at more than 265,000 per day on average, a surge driven largely by the highly contagious Omicron variant.

New cases per day have more than doubled over the last two weeks, eclipsing the old mark of 250,000 set in mid-January, according to data kept by Johns Hopkins University.

The fast-spreading mutant version of the virus has cast a pall over the holiday season, forcing communities to scale back or call off festivities just weeks after it seemed as if Americans were about to enjoy an almost normal celebration. Thousands of flights have been canceled amid staffing shortages blamed on the virus.

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Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, said Wednesday that there is no need to cancel small home gatherings among vaccinated and boosted family and friends.

But “if your plans are to go to a 40- to 50-person New Year’s Eve party with all the bells and whistles and everybody hugging and kissing and wishing each other a happy new year, I would strongly recommend that this year we not do that,” Fauci said.

The threat of Omicron and the desire to spend the holidays with friends and loved ones have spurred many Americans to get tested for the coronavirus.

Aravindh Shankar, 24, flew to San Jose on Christmas from West Lafayette, Ind., to be with family. Though he felt fine, he decided to get tested Wednesday just to play it safe, since he had been on an airplane.

He and his family spent almost an entire day searching for a testing appointment for him before he went to a site in a parking lot next to the San Jose airport.

“It was actually surprisingly hard,” Shankar said about trying to find a test. “Some people have it harder for sure.”

The picture is grim elsewhere around the world, especially in Europe, with World Health Organization director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus saying he is worried about Omicron combining with the Delta variant to produce a “tsunami” of cases. That, he said, will put “immense pressure on exhausted health workers and health systems on the brink of collapse.”

The number of Americans now in the hospital with COVID-19 is about 60,000, or about half the figure seen in January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

A sharp spike in COVID cases, fueled in part by the Omicron variant, prompts health experts to urge revelers to scale back New Year’s Eve gatherings.

Though hospitalizations sometimes lag behind case numbers, the figures may reflect not only the protection conferred by the vaccine, but also the possibility that Omicron is not making people as severely ill as previous variants.

COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have climbed over the last two weeks from an average of 1,200 per day to around 1,500.

Public health experts will be closely watching the numbers in the coming week for indications of the vaccines’ effectiveness in preventing serious illness, keeping people out of the hospital and relieving strain on exhausted healthcare workers, said Bob Bednarczyk, a professor of global health and epidemiology at Emory University.

The rise has been even steeper in Los Angeles and Orange counties — which saw daily patient counts grow by 43% and 71%, respectively, during the same time.

CDC data already suggest that the unvaccinated are hospitalized at much higher rates than those who have gotten inoculated, even if the effectiveness of the shots decreases over time, he said.

“If we’re able to weather this surge with hopefully minimal disruptions to the overall healthcare system, that is a place where vaccines are really showing their worth,” Bednarczyk said.

It’s highly unlikely that hospitalization numbers will ever rise to their previous peak, said Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Vaccines and treatments developed since last year have made it easier to curb the spread of the virus and minimize serious effects among people with so-called breakthrough infections.

“It’s going to take some time for people to get attuned to the fact that cases don’t matter the same way they did in the past,” Adalja said. “We have a lot of defense against it.”

But even with fewer people hospitalized compared with past surges, the virus can wreak havoc on hospitals and healthcare workers, he added.

“In a way, those hospitalizations are worse because they’re all preventable,” he said.

Several European countries, including France, Greece, Britain and Spain, also reported record case counts this week, prompting a ban on music at New Year’s celebrations in Greece and a renewed push to encourage vaccination by French authorities.

The WHO reported that new COVID-19 cases worldwide increased 11% last week from the week before, with nearly 4.99 million recorded Dec. 20-26. But the U.N. health agency also noted a decline in cases in South Africa, where Omicron was first detected just over a month ago.

Associated Press writer Terry Tang in San Jose contributed to this report.


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