Omicron now principal COVID-19 variant in U.S.

Omicron is now the principal version of the coronavirus in the U.S., racing ahead of all others, and accounting for 73 per cent of new infections last week, federal health officials said Monday.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention numbers showed nearly a six-fold increase in omicron’s proportion of infections in only one week.

In much of the country, omicron’s prevalence is already higher. It’s responsible for an estimated 90 per cent of new infections in the New York area, the Southeast, the industrial Midwest and the Pacific Northwest.

Since the end of June, the Delta variant has been the main version causing U.S. infections. As recently as the end of November, more than 99.5 per cent of coronaviruses were Delta, according to CDC data.

Scientists in Africa first sounded the alarm about Omicron less than a month ago, and on Nov. 26 the World Health Organization designated it as a “variant of concern.” The mutant has since shown up in about 90 countries, including Canada, where it is also already the principal variant in several regions.

People wait in a line extending around the block to receive free at-home rapid COVID-19 test kits in Philadelphia on Monday. (Matt Rourke/The Associated Press)

Much about the Omicron variant remains unknown, including whether it causes more or less harsh illness. Early studies suggest the vaccinated will need a booster or third measure for the best chance at preventing Omicron infection but already without the additional measure, vaccination nevertheless should offer strong protection against harsh illness and death.

“All of us have a date with Omicron,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “If you’re going to interact with society, if you’re going to have any kind of life, Omicron will be something you encounter, and the best way you can encounter this is to be fully vaccinated.”

Adalja said he was not surprised by the CDC data showing Omicron overtaking Delta in the U.S., given what was seen in South Africa, the U.K. and Denmark. He expected spread over the holidays, including breakthrough infections among the vaccinated and serious complications among the unvaccinated that could stress hospitals already burdened by Delta.

CDC’s estimates are based on thousands of coronavirus specimens collected each week by university and commercial laboratories and state and local health departments. Scientists analyze their genetic sequences to determine which versions of the COVID-19 viruses are most abundant.

In the week that ended Dec. 11, Omicron’s proportion of new infections in the U.S. increased to 2.9 per cent from 0.4 per cent the week before, the CDC before reported.

But the CDC on Tuesday said it’s revising some of the earlier numbers, after analyzing more specimens. The new numbers indicate that about 13 per cent of the infections the week of Dec. 11 were omicron, and not 3 per cent, CDC officials said.

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