The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday significantly revised downward its estimate of the percentage of new COVID-19 infections in the U.S. caused by the omicron variant, raising questions about the agency’s understanding of the new strain.
The CDC said omicron accounted for 22.5% of all COVID-19 cases for the week ending Dec. 18, a stunning drop from its initial estimate of 73% of all cases.
The agency said omicron accounted for about 59% of all U.S. infections as of Saturday, meaning that the delta variant still accounted for about 41% of infections.
The earlier estimate from the CDC’s Nowcast model, which is based on genomic-sequencing data, caused alarm by indicating that omicron had spiked from 3% of all cases in the U.S. to 73% nearly overnight.
A CDC spokeswoman attributed the major disparity to “a wide predictive interval posted in last week’s chart, in part because of the speed at which omicron was increasing.”
“We had more data come in from that timeframe and there was a reduced proportion of omicron,” the spokeswoman said in a statement. “It’s important to note that we’re still seeing steady increase in the proportion of omicron.”
Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottleib said on Twitter: “Setting aside the question of how the initial estimate was so inaccurate, if CDC’s new estimate of Omicron prevalence is precise then it suggests that a good portion of the current hospitalizations we’re seeing from Covid may still be driven by Delta infections.”
The new estimate prompted more criticism of the CDC. New York state Assemblyman Tom Abinanti, a Democrat from Greenburgh, said on Twitter that the federal government “prematurely cut supply of now desperately needed but unavailable monoclonal antibody treatments for delta patients when CDC wrongly estimated omicron was 73% not 23%.”
Health officials were reportedly stockpiling the monoclonal antibody treatment sotrovimab after Thanksgiving in preparation for the variant to become dominant in the U.S.
The major revision on omicron’s spread comes a day after U.S. health officials cut isolation restrictions for Americans who catch the coronavirus from 10 to five days, and they similarly shortened the time that close contacts need to quarantine. The CDC said there’s growing evidence that people with the coronavirus are most infectious in the two days before and three days after symptoms develop.
Early research suggests omicron may cause milder illnesses than other versions of the coronavirus. But the sheer number of people becoming infected — and therefore having to isolate or quarantine — threatens to crush the ability of hospitals, airlines and other businesses to stay open, according to experts.
Omicron is highly contagious, and pediatric hospitalizations for COVID-19 are rising nationwide. But New York City has far outpaced the nation, with a 400% increase in pediatric hospitalizations for the virus in December.
New York City will ramp up testing of public school students for COVID-19 next week and will stop its policy of quarantining whole classrooms of exposed students in an effort to keep schools open, officials said Tuesday, even as pediatric hospitalizations are rising.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, called remote learning “a failed experiment” as she announced the state will provide city schools with 2 million at-home test kits. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Mayor-elect Eric Adams said the tests can be sent home with students if a classmate tests positive, and students who test negative won’t need to quarantine.
“Your children are safer in school, the numbers speak for themselves,” Mr. Adams said.
Meanwhile, President Biden on Tuesday revoked travel restrictions that his administration imposed on eight countries in southern Africa where the omicron variant was first detected.
He said U.S. health officials “have made substantial progress in understanding” the fast-spreading variant.
“Importantly, scientific experts have determined that people who are vaccinated against COVID-19 are protected against severe disease and hospitalization from the omicron variant,” Mr. Biden said. “Moreover, the omicron variant has now spread to more than 100 countries, and it is prevalent in the United States.”
Despite the early indications of milder symptoms with omicron, the spread of the new variant is having a broad impact across the U.S. over the holidays.
The seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases in Philadelphia reached a high this week of 1,407 new cases per day, eclipsing the previous record of 1,235 set on Dec. 8, 2020, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
Apple closed all of its roughly one dozen New York City locations to browsing, saying the stores will be limited to picking up online orders and walk-in services such as the Genius Bar.
“We regularly monitor conditions and we will adjust both our health measures and store services to support the wellbeing of customers and employees,” the company said in a statement.
In Atlanta, Emory University’s president said the school is switching to virtual classes to start the spring semester because of a national surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the omicron variant.
The judge presiding over the sex trafficking trial of Ghislaine Maxwell cited an “astronomical spike” in the number of coronavirus cases in New York City as she explained Tuesday why she was urging jurors to work longer hours.
Judge Alison J. Nathan said aloud what had largely gone unmentioned in her previous requests to get the jury to work an extra day last week and longer hours this week as it decides whether Ms. Maxwell recruited and groomed teenage girls to be sexually abused by Jeffrey Epstein. The jury declined to work an extra day last week.
Maryland’s judiciary announced the postponement of jury trials and reduced other court operations. Jury trials scheduled between Wednesday and Feb. 8 will be rescheduled.
On Monday, state health officials reported 5,376 new cases, an increase in hospitalizations to 1,714 and an increase in the seven-day testing positivity rate to more than 16.5%.
Longtime U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, Illinois Democrat, said late Monday that he tested positive for a breakthrough case of COVID-19. The 75-year-old cancer survivor said he was “feeling fine” and had no symptoms.
The U.S. late last month had restricted travel from eight African countries — Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe — after scientists in southern Africa first discovered the omicron variant.
Biden administration officials defended the move, arguing it allowed more time to prepare for the spread of the omicron variant before it reached the U.S.
• This article is based in part on wire-service reports.
Health, The New York Today