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A girl, wearing a mask, walks down a street in the Corona neighborhood of Queens on April 14, 2020 in New York City.

A girl, wearing a mask, walks down a street in the Corona neighborhood of Queens on April 14, 2020 in New York City. (Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images)

Expect an 'Unprecedented Number of Social Disruptions' Amid Omicron Surge: Health Experts

With infections spreading like wildfire and pediatric hospitalizations for Covid-19 at an all-time high, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona admitted that there will be "bumps in the road" as schools attempt to reopen this week.

Kenny Stancil

As the ultra-transmissible Omicron variant causes Covid-19 cases in the United States and around the world to explode at an unprecedented rate, public health experts are warning that the first month of 2022 is likely to be defined by more suffering and widespread disruptions of daily life.

"Omicron is truly everywhere," Megan Ranney, a professor of emergency medicine at Brown University's School of Public Health, told CNN on Friday night. "What I am so worried about over the next month or so is that our economy is going to shut down, not because of policies from the federal government or from the state governments, but rather because so many of us are ill."

"We are going to see the number of cases in this country rise so dramatically, we are going to have a hard time keeping everyday life operating."

A day earlier, Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told MSNBC that "we are going to see the number of cases in this country rise so dramatically, we are going to have a hard time keeping everyday life operating."

"The next month is going to be a viral blizzard," he said. "All of society is going to be pressured by this."

Last week, the U.S. broke multiple records for its seven-day average of new Covid-19 cases, including an all-time high of 585,013 new infections on Thursday. Researchers said recently that Omicron is potentially 70 times more contagious than the previously dominant Delta variant, which fueled earlier spikes.

While numerous studies have found that Omicron is less lethal than previous strains of the coronavirus, disease severity still depends in large part on a patient's vaccination status.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Rochelle Walensky said last week during a White House Covid-19 briefing that "compared to people who are boosted, if you are unvaccinated, you are 10 times more likely to be a case and 20 times more likely to be a fatality. Compared to people who are (vaccinated), you are 17 times more likely to be in the hospital."

"So our vaccines are working really well to prevent severe disease and hospitalization and death," Walensky added. "They're actually also working quite well to prevent cases, although we do know more breakthrough cases are happening in the context of Omicron."

According to the CDC, 62% of the total U.S. population are fully vaccinated, 73.3% have received at least one dose, and 33.4% have received a booster dose.

Admissions to hospitals—worn thin after dealing with the pandemic for 22 months—are currently surging, prompting concerns about bed and staff capacity. On New Year's Day, roughly 90,000 people in the U.S. were hospitalized with Covid-19, up 30% compared with the previous two weeks, state and local health data show.

"Our health system is at a very different place than we were in previous surges," Esther Choo, a professor of emergency medicine at Oregon Health & Science University, told CNN on Saturday. "We have extremely high numbers of just lost healthcare workers, we've lost at least 20% of our healthcare workforce, probably more."

"This strain is so infectious," Choo added, "that I think all of us know many, many colleagues who are currently infected or have symptoms and are under quarantine."

Lucky Tran, managing director of March for Science, argued Saturday that if the U.S. does not do a better job of "protecting our healthcare system, workers, the immunocompromised, and the vulnerable," then it is "surrendering to Covid."

Last week, the CDC unveiled new guidelines for people who test positive for Covid-19—reducing the recommended isolation period from 10 to five days for individuals who are asymptomatic. While the CDC advised people with Covid-19 to wear a mask everywhere, including at home if they live with others, for five additional days, the agency did not require them to test negative before returning to normal activities.

Progressives criticized the move as "reckless," arguing that pressuring employees to return before it is clear that they are no longer infectious prioritizes corporate interests over worker safety and public health.

Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert, said Sunday that in the wake of significant "pushback," the CDC is considering updating its guidance to include a negative test before leaving self-isolation.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 78% of the nation's ICU beds are in use, with roughly 24% occupied by Covid-19 patients.

In an attempt to relieve overburdened emergency rooms, several states have requested federal medical personnel to help provide treatment and ramp up testing.

That includes Texas' Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who had the audacity to brag about defeating one of the Biden administration's legally contested federal vaccine requirements just hours after asking the White House for help.

The U.S. is now averaging nearly 1,240 Covid-19 deaths per day, and the latest projection from the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that the nation's pandemic death toll will climb by more than 50,000 during the month of January. More than 824,000 Americans have already died from the disease.

Despite mounting evidence that the Omicron variant is not as virulent as Delta and the original SARS CoV-2, "increased contagiousness can compensate for that lessened severity with sheer numbers of infections," The Week's Ryan Cooper pointed out Saturday.

"This strain is so infectious that I think all of us know many, many colleagues who are currently infected or have symptoms and are under quarantine."

"It would be a good idea to hunker down and avoid the emergency room if at all possible for about the next 6 to 8 weeks," he added.

On top of overwhelming the nation's fragile healthcare system, the skyrocketing Covid-19 case count has already started to upend daily life in other ways, and there are few signs that infections will slow down before the end of January.

Because so many baggage handlers, flight attendants, and pilots are out sick, thousands of flights have been canceled in recent days, and New York City officials have been forced to temporarily shut down three subway lines due to staffing shortages caused by the virus.

"Get ready. We have to remember, in the next few weeks, there's going to be an unprecedented number of social disruptions," Peter Hotez, dean of Baylor University's National School of Tropical Medicine, told CNN last week.

The Omicron variant is so transmissible that "even a quick, transient encounter can lead to an infection, CNN reported, "including if someone's mask is loose, or a person quickly pulls their mask down, or an individual enters an elevator in which someone else has just coughed."

"At the beginning of this pandemic... we all were taught, you have a significant exposure if you're within six feet of somebody and you're in contact with them for more than 15 minutes," CNN medical analyst Jonathan Reiner told the news outlet. "All these rules are out the window. This is a hyper-contagious virus."

According to Michael Siegel, a visiting professor in the Department of Public Health and Community Medicine at the Tufts University School of Medicine, "We are nearing a humanitarian disaster and no one seems to care."

As the holiday season recedes, new data show that people under 50 constitute an increasing share of current Covid-19 cases, which is likely to have a detrimental impact on public services given prevailing employment patterns.

Meanwhile, with the return to school quickly approaching, a growing proportion of teenagers and young children are also being infected and falling ill.

Pediatric hospitalizations for Covid-19 hit a record-high on Friday. According to the CDC, an average of 521 individuals under 18 were hospitalized with Covid-19 per day last week, an 86.1% increase over the previous week. By contrast, coronavirus-related hospital admissions grew by 40.4% for all age groups combined during the same time period.

"Put the gigantic numbers of cases together with the small number affected, plus the proportion of unvaccinated, and I'm really worried that we're going to be in for a tidal wave of admissions, particularly for kids in the coming weeks."

Children are far more likely to be hospitalized with Covid-19 if they are unvaccinated. CDC data show that roughly 53% of kids aged 12 to 17 are fully inoculated. Just 14.2% of 5 to 11-year-olds have received two doses. Children under five remain ineligible for a Covid-19 vaccine, and experts don't expect a shot to be available to them until the middle of this year.

"The explosive rise in cases is really fueling what normally might be a relatively small proportion... of kids who are experiencing these severe outcomes," Jeanne Marrazzo, director of the University of Alabama School of Medicine Division of Infectious Diseases, told CNN. "But you put the gigantic numbers of cases together with the small number affected, plus the proportion of unvaccinated, and I'm really worried that we're going to be in for a tidal wave of admissions, particularly for kids in the coming weeks."

Given the uncontrolled spread of the virus, many educators, students, parents, and health experts have expressed concern about the impending reopening of schools. Although some universities have announced that the spring semester will begin online, many secondary and primary schools appear to be opting for in-person, rather than virtual, learning.

Hotez predicted last week that keeping schools open throughout January will prove difficult "because of this high transmissibility—especially if you start seeing absences of school teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria staff."

On Sunday, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona urged schools to do everything in their power to remain open for full-time, in-person learning during the Omicron surge.

But he also admitted that there will be "bumps in the road," and acknowledged that short-term closures and remote instruction may be necessary in the coming weeks.

Speaking with CNN on Saturday, James Phillips, chief of disaster medicine at George Washington University Hospital, said that "what's coming for the rest of the country could be very serious and they need to be prepared."

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