By Isabel Van Brugen
New COVID-19 cases in the United States have soared to their highest level on record, as the Omicron coronavirus variant is estimated to have taken over the virus’s Delta variant as the most prevalent strain contributing to new COVID-19 infections.
The United States is seeing over 265,000 new COVID-19 infections per day on average, according to data kept by Johns Hopkins University, surpassing a prior record of 250,000 daily cases set in mid-January.
The latest wave of infections is largely being fueled by the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the strain accounts for 58.6 percent of all strains actively circulating in the United States as of Dec. 25, up from 22.5 percent for the week ending on Dec. 18.
CDC officials have said they don’t yet have estimates of how many hospitalizations or deaths out of the total are due to the high transmissible Omicron variant.
CDC Director Rochelle Walensky on Wednesday told reporters that while some data from other countries showed less severe disease with the Omicron variant, it was too early to gauge the impact across the United States, particularly given its uneven vaccination rates.
“The rapid increase in cases we are seeing across the country is, in large part, a reflection of the exceptionally transmissible Omicron variant,” she said. “In a few short weeks, Omicron has rapidly increased across the country and we expect will continue to circulate in the coming weeks.”
Walensky noted that while the seven-day daily average of positive cases is up 60 percent over the previous week, the hospitalization rate for the same period is up only 14 percent, to about 9,000 per day. Deaths were down about 7 percent to 1,100 per day, she said.
“While our cases have substantially increased from last week, hospitalizations and deaths remain comparatively low right now,” she said.
Domestic flights in the United States have taken a hit due to staffing issues amid rising COVID-19 cases, with flight cancellations continuing to cause holiday travel chaos nationwide. By mid-afternoon on Wednesday, more than 900 flights within, into, or out of the United States were canceled.
The CDC also said it was monitoring 86 cruise ships that have reported COVID-19 cases.
The agency meanwhile issued new guidance this week to cut its recommended isolation time for infected Americans in half—from 10 days to five if they are asymptomatic.
“We are standing on the shoulders now of two years of science,” Walenksy told NPR on Tuesday of the new rules, explaining that “the vast majority of transmission occurs” around two days prior to the onset of symptoms and three days after.
“So in that five day window is really when that transmission is happening.”
Walensky acknowledged that although transmission can occur after the fifth day of isolation, the CDC made the decision to reduce its recommended isolation time for infected Americans because it anticipates a “really large” number of cases due to the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus.
“We also want to make sure that we keep the critical functions of society open and operating. We started to see challenges with that, with airline flights and other areas,” the CDC director explained.
Reuters contributed to this report.