For anyone getting complacent about the coronavirus because the now-dominant omicron variant typically causes less-severe disease than previous strains, here's a sobering thought: 50,000 to 300,000 more Americans may die of COVID-19 before the current surge ebbs in mid-March.
Those are the projections of modelers, according to an Associated Press story, and they provide a grim reminder that omicron's remarkable infectiousness more than makes up for its seemingly softer punch.
The seven-day rolling average for daily new COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. has been trending upward since mid-November, reaching nearly 1,700 on Monday – still well below the peak of 3,300 in January 2021.
The biggest concern in the coming weeks is reflected by simple math: Even if new infections have peaked in some parts of the U.S., they're averaging around 800,000 a day nationwide, more than three times as many as in that brutal wave a year ago. That will inevitably lead to hospitals stretched beyond their limits and thousands of deaths. There are currently about 150,000 patients in hospitals with COVID.
If the higher end of projections becomes reality, total U.S. deaths from COVID-19 could soar over 1 million by early spring.
“A lot of people are still going to die because of how transmissible omicron has been,” University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi said.
Katriona Shea of Pennsylvania State University, who co-leads a team that pulls together several pandemic models and shares the combined projections with the White House, expects the coming wave of deaths to crest in late January or early February, possibly surpassing last year's delta peak.
“This is omicron driven,” Shea said, underscoring once again the danger posed by the latest variant.
Also in the news:
►A Florida man named Louis Thornton III, of St. Petersburg, has been sentenced to three years and six months in prison for fraudulently collecting more than $800,000 in COVID-19 relief funds. Thornton, 63, pleaded guilty in September to wire fraud and must also pay back the money he received.
►New York is the third state to report more COVID-19 cases already in 2022 than in all of 2020, a USA TODAY analysis of Johns Hopkins University data shows. Hawaii and Vermont have also surpassed their 2020 counts.
►Authorities in Hong Kong plan to kill some 2,000 small animals after several tested positive for the coronavirus at a pet store where an employee also tested positive. Hong Kong will also stop the sale of hamsters and the import of small mammals.
►Canada approved use of the antiviral pill Paxlovid, created by Pfizer, to treat people with COVID-19. The U.S. approved its use in December.
►Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean International, both subsidiaries of Royal Caribbean Group, have canceled cruises as COVID-19 continues to spread.
📈 Today's numbers: The U.S. has recorded more than 67 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 853,000 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Global totals: More than 332 million cases and over 5.55 million deaths. More than 209 million Americans – 63% – are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
📘 What we're reading: Many parents are "just trying to stay afloat" as omicron is forcing day care centers to close in droves across the country. Read the full story.
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Free COVID test kits available to order on federal website a day ahead of schedule
Although a federal website offering free COVID-19 at-home testing kits doesn’t officially launch until Wednesday, covidtests.gov was operating at limited capacity Tuesday, allowing some people to order tests.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the site is in its beta phase to allow troubleshooting.
“We can’t guarantee there won’t be a bug or two,” Psaki said, “but the best tech teams across the administration and the postal service are working hard to make this a success.”
Some users immediately identified at least one problem: Orders made by different people living in the same apartment building but in different units were rejected as duplicate, according to some tweets. Americans are supposed to be able to order up to four kits per address. Once ordered, tests are to be mailed within 7-12 days.
The website is expected to officially launch mid-morning Wednesday.
The Biden administration is buying 1 billion tests to distribute through the website and a phone line. Some tests are being reserved to prioritize households in the hardest-hit and highest-risk communities.
The White House is ramping up efforts to make testing more accessible and affordable after facing criticism from both Republicans and Democrats over a lack of tests amid surging coronavirus rates.
-- Maureen Groppe
Arkansas inmates sue jail, sheriff and doctor over alleged ivermectin treatment
Four inmates in Arkansas filed suit against their jail and its doctor for allegedly prescribing them "high doses'' of ivermectin without their knowledge to treat COVID-19 even though health officials have warned that the anti-parasitic drug shouldn't be used for that purpose.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit in federal court on behalf of the detainees -- Dayman Blackburn, Edrick Floreal-Wooten, Julio Gonzales and Jeremiah Little -- against the Washington County jail, Washington County Sheriff Tim Helder and Dr. Robert Karas. Helder in August revealed that ivermectin had been prescribed to inmates to treat COVID-19.
The inmates said they were told they were being given vitamins, antibiotics or steroids, not ivermectin. They said the drug caused them to develop diarrhea, stomach cramps, bloody stools and vision problems.
"Without knowing and voluntary consent, plaintiffs ingested incredibly high doses of a drug that credible medical professionals, the FDA, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all agree is not an effective treatment against COVID-19, and that if given in large doses is dangerous for humans," the lawsuit said.
The Food and Drug Administration has approved ivermectin for use by people and animals for some parasitic worms, head lice and skin conditions but not for treatment or prevention of COVID-19.
'Open question' whether omicron is final wave, Fauci says
It's too soon to know whether the omicron variant will be the final phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said Monday.
"It is an open question as to whether or not omicron is going to be the live virus vaccination that everyone is hoping for," Fauci said, putting air quotes around the phrase "live virus vaccination."
There are two ways for a pandemic to end: the infectious disease is eliminated, like measles, or it becomes endemic, which means it still exists without major disruption to society, much like the flu.
"If you look at the history of infectious diseases, we’d only eradicated one infectious disease in man and that’s smallpox," Fauci said at the World Economic Forum. "That’s not going to happen with this virus."
That means COVID-19 must evolve into a less dangerous disease for the pandemic to officially end. Although the highly contagious omicron variant is spreading quickly — infecting about 782,000 Americans per day, according to the CDC — some point to its low mortality rate as a sign that the virus may be becoming less severe.
It's possible that omicron could signal that the pandemic is ending, “but that would only be the case if we don’t get another variant that eludes the immune response,” Fauci said.
NYC schools 'exploring' remote learning option
New York City's public schools are "exploring" a remote learning option amid the omicron surge as roughly a quarter of students in the district weren't in school last Friday, Chancellor David C. Banks said at a news conference Tuesday.
Local news outlets Gothamist and CBS New York reported the city had changed its attendance policy to allow more students to learn remotely during the surge. Banks said no change in remote learning policy was set to be announced, but said the city's schools were providing an "on ramp" to the classroom by allowing more students to be marked as present while receiving instruction online.
Mayor Eric Adams, who has vowed to keep schools open while other school systems face closures, said any remote learning option is intended for students who have tested positive and cannot attend school in person, "not for the general population."
Around 75% of the school district's more than 1 million students were in class Friday, according to Department of Education attendance data. Banks said meetings with the United Federation of Teachers, which represents most of the district's teachers, remain ongoing.
Australia sees record deaths with hospitals stressed
A record-high 74 people died due to COVID-19 in Australia on Tuesday, the largest single-day tally in the country since the start of the pandemic, as hospitals are facing a surge of patients and staffing shortages.
“We’ve reached a point in our healthcare system where it’s juggling extreme workforce shortages … alongside a vast number of patients with COVID-19 who require hospitalization, alongside that an extraordinary workforce that are absolutely exhausted,” said James Merlino, the acting health minister in Victoria, where the government last week declared an emergency for some of its hospitals.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said there were signs that New South Wales’ infection rate was peaking and Victoria was near a plateau. The New South Wales government has said it has ruled out a return to lockdown.
Study: Nearly half of US adults gained weight during pandemic's first year
Research from New Mexico State University found pandemic-fueled, stress-related unhealthy eating habits in Americans. Now, a study co-authored by a researcher from the NMSU Department of Public Health Sciences shows nearly half of all adults in the United States gained weight during the first year of the pandemic.
The new findings were part of a national assessment on weight gain in America conducted by a research team that included Jagdish Khubchandani, a public health professor at NMSU.
“Obesity was an epidemic before the pandemic, and little was known on body weight changes in the past year for adult Americans,” Khubchandani said. “We wanted to estimate weight changes in the U.S. population and its determinants after the first year of the pandemic."
The study, published in “Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome: Clinical Research and Reviews,” included 3,473 adult participants. The results show 48% of the study group reported gaining weight during the first 12 months of the pandemic, from March 2020 to April 2021.
Participants who reported weight gain were more likely to be males, white or Hispanic, married, 45 years old or older, working full time, have less than a college education, or living in southern and western states or rural areas of the U.S., according to the study.
— Carlos Andres López, Las Cruces Sun News
Contributing: The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 50,000-300,000 omicron deaths projected; free tests available: Updates