U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration is ramping up its national coronavirus containment campaign as record-high infections fueled by the omicron variant threaten to overwhelm hospitals and disrupt some school reopening plans.
The United States reported one million new infections on Monday, the highest of any country in the world. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters Wednesday the seven-day average of infections is about 491,700 daily, a 98% increase from the previous week.
“We now estimate that omicron represents about 95% of cases in the country and delta represents the remaining 5% of the cases, Walensky said during the regular White House coronavirus briefing.
“The sharp rise in cases and the emergence of the more transmissible omicron variant emphasizes the importance of vaccinations and boosters,” Walensky added.
Biden on Tuesday urged the 35 million adults who have not been inoculated to do so, noting that unvaccinated people were taking hospital beds and crowding emergency rooms that other patients need.
In addition to triggering thousands of commercial flight cancellations and closures of entertainment and other venues in recent weeks, the latest spike is disrupting plans to reopen public schools after the winter break.
Public school officials in the midwestern city of Chicago, the third-largest school district in the U.S., said they would cancel classes on Wednesday after the teachers’ union voted to return to remote learning because cases reached record-high levels. It was unclear Wednesday if schools would remain closed for the rest of the week.
In the northwestern city of Seattle, about 4% of the more than 14,000 students and staff in public schools who participated in the school system’s rapid testing program tested positive. The tests were administered in pop-up clinics on Sunday and Monday after receiving 60,000 rapid tests from the state health department.
More than 54,000 students returned to class on Tuesday in the northeastern U.S. city of Boston after the winter break. But about 1,000 staff members remained at home, including 461 teachers and 52 bus drivers, according to superintendent Brenda Cassellius.
The record surge has forced more than 3,200 schools nationwide to close this week, according to the website Burbio, which follows school disruptions.
More than 325,000 COVID-19 cases among children were reported in the U.S. for the week ending Dec. 30, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children's Hospital Association. The new cases nearly doubled from the week before, marking a new record.
“The Biden administration has provided $130 billion in American Rescue Plan funding to schools to implement proven prevention measures, including ventilation and social distancing and an additional $10 billion to support testing in schools,” White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeffrey Zients said during Wednesday’s briefing.
As the high number of omicron cases threatens to overwhelm U.S. hospitals, some are already struggling to treat COVID-19 patients.
“We are dealing with a highly, highly transmissible variant that spreads rapidly. The data are overwhelming in that regard,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, an assistant to the president, said during Wednesday’s briefing.
Fauci also warned Americans not to be lulled into complacency by evidence showing omicron causes milder illness than earlier variants of the coronavirus.
“The big caveat is we should not be complacent,” Fauci said. He added, “the increased transmissibility of omicron might be overridden by the sheer volume of the number of cases that may be of reduced severity but could still stress our hospital system because a certain proportion of a large volume of cases, no matter what, are going to be severe.”
Larry Hogan, governor of the U.S. mid-Atlantic state of Maryland, declared a 30-day state of emergency Tuesday amid patient surges at hospitals as infections soared statewide.
The declaration authorizes the mobilization of 1,000 National Guard members to bolster response operations in a state that saw infections soar five-fold in seven weeks to a record high of more than 3,000, Hogan said.
Zients said the White House “is deploying every available measure to help states, communities and hospitals confront this omicron challenge.”
Zients said military doctors, nurses and emergency medical technicians are helping staffs in hospitals across the U.S. He also said the Biden administration has shipped 2.4 million pieces of personal protective equipment in the last two weeks for health care workers and established free testing locations across the nation with new sites opening soon in Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, Texas and Washington State.