More than a year after the COVID-19 vaccine was rolled out, new cases in the United States have soared to their 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 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 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.
Thousands of flights have been cancelled amid staffing shortages blamed on the virus.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious-disease expert, on Wednesday said 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 in 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 hospitalisations 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.
Deaths in the US have climbed over the past two weeks from an average of 1200 per day to about 1500.
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.
CDC data already suggests that the unvaccinated are hospitalised at much higher rates than those who have gotten inoculated, even if the effectiveness of the shots decreases over time.
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.
WHO reported that new cases worldwide increased 11 per cent last week from the week before, with nearly 4.99 million recorded December 20-26.
But the United Nations health agency also noted a decline in cases in South Africa, where Omicron was first detected just over a month ago.