The fast-growing Omicron variant may have less severe disease on average, but COVID-19 deaths in the US are on the rise and modelers estimate another 50,000 to 300,000 more Americans could die by the time the wave subsides in mid-March .
The seven-day rolling average for daily new COVID-19 deaths in the US has been trending upward since mid-November, reaching nearly 1,700 on January 17 – down from a peak of 3,300 in January 2021. COVID-19 deaths in nursing home residents began rising slightly two weeks ago, though still at a rate 10 times lower than last year before most residents were vaccinated.
Despite indications that Omicron causes an average of minor illness, unprecedented levels of infection are spreading across the country, with cases still rising in many states, meaning many vulnerable people will become seriously ill. If the high end of the projections is passed, it would push the total US deaths from COVID-19 to more than 1 million by early spring.
“Many people are still going to die because of how transmissible omicrons have become,” said University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi. “Unfortunately it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
In Johnson County, Kansas, morgues are starting to run out of space, said Dr. Sanami Areola, director of the Department of Health. More than 30 residents have died in the county this year, most of whom have not been vaccinated.
But the notion that the generally less severe form can still kill thousands of people is hard for health experts to tell. The math of this – that a small percentage of a very high number of infections can lead to a very high number of deaths – is hard to imagine.
“Overall, you’re going to see more people sick, even though you’re less likely to get sick as an individual,” said Caitriona Shea of Pennsylvania State University, who co-leads a team that Pulls together and shares multiple pandemic models. Joint estimates with the White House.
Shea said the wave of deaths in the United States would peak in late January or early February. By early February, weekly deaths could equal or exceed the delta peak, and possibly even surpass the previous US peak in deaths last year.
Some unknown part of these deaths are in people infected with the delta variant, but experts say that Omicron is also taking lives.
“It’s Omicron driven,” Shea said of the impending wave of deaths. The combined model projects 1.5 million Americans will be hospitalized and 191,000 will die from mid-December to mid-March. Taking into account the uncertainty in the models, US deaths during the Omicron wave could range from 58,000 to 305,000.
Nevertheless, it has become increasingly clear that the risk from Omicron is lower than from previous variants. New evidence from nearly 70,000 patients in Southern California suggests that Omicron is causing milder disease than Delta.
One study, posted online and cited during a recent White House briefing, found that patients with Omicron had a 53% lower risk of hospitalization with respiratory symptoms, a 74% lower ICU admission There was a 91% low risk of exposure and death. The study, which has not yet been peer reviewed, comes from researchers at Kaiser Permanente and the University of California, Berkeley.
“It’s hard for me to say directly that this is good news,” said Sarah Y. Tartoff, a Kaiser Permanente Research Scientist. “Perhaps there is good news in the sense that if you are infected your chances of getting seriously ill are reduced, but from a social point of view it is a very heavy burden for us. It remains a serious condition, and we need to uphold the practices and practices that we know protect us.”
Mark Lipsich of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and scientific director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Forecasting Centers said that overburdened hospitals could also contribute to more deaths.
“In places with extremely low staffing and overloading of patients, as medical professionals are telling us, the quality of care begins to suffer,” Lipsich said. “It may also lead to higher mortality, but that’s not in any model that I’m aware of.”
Associated Press writer Heather Hollingsworth in Mission, Kansas contributed.
The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.
Subscribe to the bi-weekly newsletter to have health news sent straight to your inbox.