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Hospitals brace for a COVID surge as people travel for the holidays

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

As this holiday week begins, the omicron variant of the coronavirus is quickly becoming dominant. The U.S. now averages more than 125,000 new COVID cases each day. Cities such as New York and Washington, D.C., are blowing through daily case records, and hospitals are now bracing for a surge as people start to travel all around the country. Now, in a moment, we're going to hear from Dr. Anthony Fauci, but first, let's bring in NPR's Allison Aubrey with the latest. Allison, a very busy travel week this week, lots of people planning to get together with family and friends, and we're facing another COVID surge.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Yeah, good morning, A. We're already seeing it. Cases are up about 30% since the end of November. Right now there are about 60,000 people in the hospital with COVID across the country, close to 1,200 deaths a day. Now, this is mostly still from delta, but omicron is taking over. It's happening fast. I spoke to Dr. Peter Hotez of Baylor College of Medicine, who's been tracking this closely.

PETER HOTEZ: We're going to get a one-two-three punch. So Punch 1 is delta, Punch 2 is omicron, but Punch 3 is the fact that we're going to see a lot of vaccinated health care workers get knocked out of the workforce, not because they're getting very sick but sick enough to be at home.

AUBREY: And at a time when hospital resources are already stretched so thin, A, this is a concern.

MARTINEZ: I know early on there was some hope that infections from omicron would be less severe, that people wouldn't get as sick or need to be hospitalized, but as infections rise, what are we actually seeing?

AUBREY: Well, there's some new information from researchers in the U.K. at Imperial College London. They say there's no evidence so far that infections from omicron are any less severe than infections from delta, meaning many people may get just mild illness, but others may get very sick, especially people who are not vaccinated. Now, new government data from the U.K. shows hospital admissions in London are up about 28%, but the mayor of London said the vast, vast majority are unvaccinated.

MARTINEZ: All right. So what do we know, then, about how fast omicron is spreading in the U.S. and whether it's leading to increased hospitalizations here?

AUBREY: Omicron has now been detected in most states, at least 45. In New York on Friday, 21,000 new coronavirus cases were reported, a high not seen since early in the pandemic. Omicron accounted for an estimated 13% of cases in the state as of last week, but this has likely risen, given just how quickly the variant is spreading. Elsewhere, I spoke to Dr. Jim Musser at Houston Methodist Hospital, where on Friday, omicron cases accounted for about 45% of positive cases sequenced there. Now it's up to 82%. That includes patients in the hospital and outpatients.

JIM MUSSER: Well, we've seen a dramatic increase in our omicron case counts over the last week. Its doubling rate is unprecedented. You know, let's just compare it to delta. The doubling time for delta was between five and seven days. We're now at two to three days.

AUBREY: So far, he says they have seen about a hundred patients with omicron, and he says it's just too soon to determine whether cases on average are more or less severe.

MARTINEZ: So does the doctor think that they can keep up if cases rise as expected?

AUBREY: You know, he says they've learned a lot from past surges. They've been through this multiple times now, so he says they can handle it. But the concern for all hospitals, really, A, is that it's clear omicron is infecting fully vaccinated people, and if a bunch of vaccinated health care workers get breakthrough infections, this is going to present a problem.

MUSSER: They're going to be out from work for 10 days by protocol. So that's - that, I think, especially around the holidays, the nurses, the physicians, the laboratory technologists, everyone is stressed to the max, stretched and stressed to the max.

AUBREY: So this is the concern. And in the U.K., the mayor of London says they've already begun to see a lot of absences in their hospitals.

MARTINEZ: Is it clear yet how much protection the vaccines that are out right now offer against omicron?

AUBREY: You know, the vaccines don't offer as much protection against omicron, so vaccinated people are vulnerable to infection. But data from the U.K. shows that when people get a third dose, a booster, protection does go way back up to about 75% effectiveness against symptomatic COVID. Moderna has reported preliminary data showing its current booster significantly increases neutralizing antibodies, helping to fend off omicron. So as all this evidence accumulates, there's a big push to get people boosted. This is the message we're likely to hear from President Biden, who is expected to address the nation tomorrow, A.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks a lot.

AUBREY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.