More than a year after vaccines were rolled out, new cases of COVID-19 in the US have soared to their highest level on record at over 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 past 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 Christmas and New Year's, forcing communities to scale back or call off their festivities just weeks after it seemed as if Americans were about to enjoy an almost normal holiday season, the AP reports. Thousands of flights have been canceled amid staffing shortages blamed on the virus.
Cases in six Canadian provinces—including the three most populous, Ontario, Quebec, and BC—also hit new highs Wednesday, per the AP. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top US 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," he said. The number of Americans now in the hospital with COVID-19 is running at around 60,000, or about half the figure seen in January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
While hospitalizations sometimes lag behind cases, the hospital figures may reflect both the protection conferred by the vaccine and the possibility that omicron is not making people as sick as previous versions. COVID-19 deaths in the US have climbed over the past 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 health care workers, says Bob Bednarczyk, a professor of global health and epidemiology at Emory University. (Fauci said Wednesday that "all indications" suggest omicron is milder than the delta variant.)