The White House COVID-19 response team on Wednesday reminded Americans of the continued need to slow the omicron variant’s spread despite its decreased severity and announced new efforts to help keep schools open.
As the omicron variant sweeps across the U.S., Dr. Rochelle Walensky emphasized that wearing masks, getting vaccinated and undergoing COVID-19 testing when necessary are the best strategies to help lower cases of the virus.
Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the omicron variant accounted for 98% of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. Earlier this week, the U.S. set a record for the number of daily infections at nearly 1.5 million, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
“All of us must do our part to protect our hospitals and our neighbors and reduce the further spread of this virus,” Walensky said.
The White House team also announced that the Biden administration would distribute 10 million tests to schools across the country each month to ensure they remain open, more than doubling the testing volume from last year.
Although the omicron variant is highly transmissible, it remains less severe than the delta variant, with a decreased risk of hospitalization and death.
Walensky, citing a recent study comparing the two variants, said omicron infections were associated with a 91% reduction in the risk of death and a 74% reduction in the risk of ICU admission.
She also said that infections with the variant had a 53% reduced risk of symptomatic hospitalization.
While the risk of hospitalization remains low, the “staggering rise in cases” has increased the country’s number of hospitalizations, according to Walensky.
Nonetheless, she said, patients infected with omicron are experiencing 71% shorter hospital stays than those infected with the delta variant.
On average, omicron patients are hospitalized for about 1.5 days and 90% are expected to be discharged in three days or less.
As the surge continues, Walensky reiterated that cases of the variant are expected to peak in the coming weeks. She also said deaths have increased, with more than 2,600 reported by John Hopkins on Wednesday.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious-disease expert, said the country would not be able to eliminate or eradicate COVID-19, but would “ultimately control it.” As the virus becomes endemic, it is likely that “virtually everybody is going to wind up getting exposed and likely get infected,” he said.
However, he added, this does not mean that vaccinations or preventative measures are ineffective or pointless. Fauci clarified that getting vaccinated and staying up to date with booster shots will prevent serious illness from the disease.
“If you’re vaccinated and if you’re boosted, the chances of your getting sick are very, very low,” Fauci said.
To help battle the current surge, the White House team stressed that mitigation efforts remain critical, including wearing a mask. While N95 masks have been shown to be the most effective in resisting airborne transmission of the virus, the CDC still recommends that, for the time being, people choose the mask that is right for them, and that wearing any well-fitting mask is better than no mask.
“We want to highlight that the best mask for you is the one that you can wear comfortably,” Walensky said.
Jeffrey D. Zients, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator, was asked about finding masks and said the administration is “strongly considering options to make more high-quality masks available to all Americans.”
As for schools, the team said that, along with increased testing, vaccination and other mitigation efforts are the keys to keeping students in the classroom.
Walensky stated that with pediatric vaccines now available, schools should be able to continue operating as planned. She also reminded reporters that 99% of schools remained open in the fall during a surge in the delta variant.
“One of the best things we can do is get our children and our teenagers vaccinated,” she said.