As the omicron variant spreads like wildfire across the United States, it's likely just about everybody will be exposed to the strain, but vaccinated people will still fare better, the nation's leading infectious disease expert said Tuesday.
"Omicron, with its extraordinary, unprecedented degree of efficiency of transmissibility, will ultimately find just about everybody," Dr. Anthony Fauci told J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Those who have been vaccinated ... and boosted would get exposed. Some, maybe a lot of them, will get infected but will very likely, with some exceptions, do reasonably well in the sense of not having hospitalization and death."
In contrast, those who are not vaccinated are "going to get the brunt of the severe aspect of this," he added.
Across the United States, at least one in five eligible Americans — roughly 65 million people — are not vaccinated against COVID-19. More than 62% of the country has been fully vaccinated, but only 23% are fully vaccinated and boosted, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fauci's comments came in response to a question about whether the pandemic has entered a new phase. That will come when there's enough protection in the community and drugs to easily treat severe COVID-19, he said, adding, "We may be on the threshold of that right now."
Also Tuesday, U.S. Food and Drug Administration acting commissioner Dr. Janet Woodcock said that while most people could catch the virus, the focus now should be on making sure hospitals and essential services function.
Woodcock was responding to a question from Sen. Mike Braun about whether it's time for the United States to change its COVID-19 strategy. Her statement was not a new assessment of COVID-19, but rather an attempt to make clear the need to prioritize essential services as the omicron variant surges.
"I think it's hard to process what's actually happening right now, which is: Most people are going to get COVID," Woodcock said Tuesday at a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing. "And what we need to do is make sure the hospitals can still function, transportation, you know, other essential services are not disrupted while this happens."
On Tuesday, the number of U.S. patients hospitalized with COVID-19 hit a record high, adding strain to health care networks and pushing states toward emergency staffing and other measures as they struggle to cope.
More than 145,900 people were in U.S. hospitals with COVID-19 as of Tuesday — a number that surpasses the previous peak from mid-January 2021 (142,246), and is almost twice what it was two weeks ago, according to data from the Department of Health and Human Services.
The hospitalization record comes amid a surge in cases fueled by the highly transmissible omicron variant.
The United States averaged more than 754,200 new COVID-19 cases daily over the past week, according to Johns Hopkins University data. That's about three times last winter's peak average (251,987 on Jan. 11, 2021), and 4.5 times the peak from the delta-driven surge (166,347 on Sept. 1), according to JHU.
The country has averaged 1,646 COVID-19 deaths a day over the past week — 33% higher than a week ago, according to JHU. The peak average was 3,402 daily on Jan. 13, 2021, JHU data shows.
The omicron variant caused 98.3% of new coronavirus cases in the United States last week, according to estimates posted Tuesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Share of hospitalizations from breakthrough infections is growing, but risks for unvaccinated are higher
The HHS data on COVID-19 hospitalizations includes both those patients who are hospitalized because of COVID-19 complications and those who may have been admitted for something else but test positive for COVID-19. This has been true throughout the pandemic, though the share of patients who fall into each category may have changed over time.
Fully vaccinated people are accounting for a growing share of people hospitalized with COVID-19 — but hospitalizations among people who received a booster shot are still rare, and the gap in risk by vaccination status has been wide.
Between April and July 2021, before the emergence of the omicron variant, more than 90% of COVID-19 hospitalizations were among people who were either unvaccinated or partially vaccinated, according to a study published by the CDC.
But a sampling of data collected by CNN suggests that figure has dropped to somewhere between 60% and 75% in recent days and months:
• In Pennsylvania, about 75% of COVID-19 hospitalizations between September and early December 2021 were among people who were not fully vaccinated, according to data from the state health department.
• In New York, about 61% of COVID-19 hospitalizations during the week ending Jan. 2, 2022 were among people who were not fully vaccinated, according to data from the state health department.
• Beaumont Health, the largest health care system in Michigan, reported on Thursday that 62% of COVID-19 patients in its eight hospitals were unvaccinated.
In some hospitals, up to 40% of patients with COVID-19 "are coming in not because they're sick with COVID, but because they're coming in with something else and have had COVID or the omicron variant detected," CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told Fox News on Sunday.
But COVID-19 cases in hospitals strain resources, regardless of whether a patient was hospitalized because of COVID-19, CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta said.
"If they get (incidentally) diagnosed with COVID in the hospital, they still need to go into infection protocol — personal protective equipment, all of that still needs to be utilized. So it's a huge drain on the system overall," Gupta said Tuesday.
While fully vaccinated people are accounting for a larger share of COVID-19 hospitalizations, multiple accounts suggest that those who are fully vaccinated and boosted account for a small share.
In the University of Maryland Medical System, less than 5% of hospitalized patients were fully vaccinated and boosted, President and CEO Dr. Mohan Suntha said Thursday. Beaumont Health reported Thursday that only 8% of COVID-19 patients were fully vaccinated and boosted.
The CDC did not respond to CNN's multiple requests for data on the share of COVID-19 hospitalizations by vaccination status.
The agency publishes data on its website regarding the relative risk by vaccination status. Cumulatively, the risk of hospitalization has been eight times higher for unvaccinated people than for fully vaccinated people. But in the last week of November, CDC data showed that hospitalization rates were about 17 times higher for unvaccinated people than for fully vaccinated people.