Covid-19 hospitalisations in the United States are poised to hit a new high as early as Friday, according to a Reuters tally, surpassing the record set in January of last year as the highly contagious Omicron variant fuels a surge in infections.
Hospitalisations have increased steadily since late December as Omicron quickly overtook Delta as the dominant coronavirus variant in the United States, although experts say Omicron will likely prove less deadly than prior iterations.
Health officials have nevertheless warned that the sheer number of infections caused by Omicron was placing a strain on hospitals, some of which are struggling to keep up with the influx of patients because their own workers are out sick.
"It's sort of like medical throughput gridlock," Dr. Peter Dillon, the chief clinical officer at Penn State Health in Pennsylvania, said in an interview. "There (are) so many forces now contributing to the challenges and I think there's an element, I don't want to say despair, but of fatigue."
The United States reported 662,000 new Covid-19 cases on Thursday, the fourth highest daily U.S. total, just three days after a record of nearly 1 million cases was hit, according to the Reuters tally.
U.S. Covid hospitalisations approached 123,000, appearing poised to top the record above 132,000, according to the tally. Deaths, a lagging indicator, remain fairly steady at about 1,400 a day, well below last year's peak.
Hospitalisation data, however, often does not differentiate between people admitted for COVID-19 and so-called incidental cases involving people who were admitted for other reasons and were found to be infected during routine testing.
In New York 42% of patients hospitalised with Covid-19 were in the incidental category, Governor Kathy Hochul told a briefing on Friday, a sign of how the data may not be giving the clearest picture of Omicron's impact in terms of severe disease.
While hospitalizations continue to rise in New York, Hochul and other state officials expressed optimism that the worst of the Omicron wave could pass in the coming days.
"We need a couple more days to be able to tell that it has peaked," said Dr. Mary Bassett, New York's acting Health Commissioner. "I think that we can expect a difficult January but that things should be much better by February."
Rising cases have forced hospital systems in nearly half of US states to postpone elective surgeries.
While many school systems have vowed to continue in-person instruction, some have faced ad hoc closures as cases rise. Chicago Public Schools, the third-largest US education district, were closed for a third day on Friday amid a teacher walkout over COVID-19 protections.
US and other officials have said schools can be safely opened, especially amid widely available vaccines and boosters, and the CDC on Thursday issued new guidelines for schools on isolation policies.
While the United States is fighting a surge right now, the country will have to face the long-term impacts, Walensky said.
"We are definitely looking at a time ahead of us where COVID ... will be an endemic virus," the CDC director told NBC.
Officials continue to press vaccinations as the best protection against COVID, although federal mandates requiring them have become politically contentious.
Later on Friday, the US Supreme Court will weigh requests to block President Joe Biden's vaccine mandate for larger employers and a separate similar requirement for healthcare facilities.
The US Food and Drug Administration on Friday shortened the interval between the primary series of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine and a booster dose by a month for people aged 18 or above to at least five months.
The regulatory decision comes days after the agency made a similar move and cut the interval for booster shot eligibility to five months from six for the Pfizer and BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine. The Pfizer booster shot has also been authorised for use in children aged 12 to 15. -REUTERS