The omicron variant is spreading rapidly all over the country, but hospitalization and death rates remain relatively low.
The seven-day average of COVID-19 cases topped 280,000 this week, according to data from Johns Hopkins University's tracker. It's a record number of new cases in the country; the last time the number of cases hit a peak close to that was January.
Public health officials including Dr. Anthony Fauci and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky say the new variant appears to be less severe than ones in the past but still emphasize the need to follow public health protocols like getting vaccinated and wearing a mask to curb the spread of the virus.
Data from the White House provided at a briefing Wednesday shows the seven-day average of hospitalizations is about 9,000 per day — which is a 14% increase in hospitalizations from last week. However, there was a 60% rise in cases over the same time frame. The seven-day average of COVID-19 deaths is down from last week, at about 1,100 deaths per day.
Officials say the difference is in part because omicron causes less severe symptoms for those who are vaccinated and especially for those who are boosted.
Another reason for the wide gap between the increase in hospitalizations and cases, Fauci said, is that hospitalizations tend to lag behind recorded cases. Still, "all indications point to less severe illness with omicron than delta," he said.
Fauci also cited a new study out of South Africa which shows that hospital admissions from the omicron wave there were 4.5% of cases versus 21.3% with other variants. The number of patients who needed oxygen while in the hospital with the omicron variant was half as much as the number of patients with previous variants. And the length of stay in the hospital was about four days with the omicron variant, compared with an average of 8.8 days with earlier waves.
Despite the seemingly lower severity of the omicron variant, Fauci emphasized the need for people to get vaccinated and boosted.
"Boosters bring back up that degree of protection," he said. "Boosters are critical."