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Omicron causes record-breaking COVID cases in the U.S. and globally

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Omicron is causing record-breaking numbers of COVID cases around the world. Yesterday, the U.S. counted more than 480,000 cases in a single day. That's more than double the number of daily cases reported during the peak of the delta surge. So there's no doubt the omicron surge is going to be big, but some public health officials say it might not be as bad. And we're getting some more promising news about vaccines. NPR's global health correspondent Michaeleen Doucleff joins us to explain more. Good morning.

MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF, BYLINE: Good morning.

MCCAMMON: With cases in the U.S. skyrocketing, Michaeleen, how could anyone say, first of all, that this variant isn't as bad as, say, the delta variant?

DOUCLEFF: Well, it's because even though cases are going up dramatically, hospitalizations have not. So cases have increased about 75% in the past week. Hospitalizations have gone up only about 12%. At the White House briefing yesterday, Dr. Anthony Fauci mentioned data from other countries, including the U.K., showing that the risk of hospitalization looks lower with omicron.

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ANTHONY FAUCI: The risk of hospitalization admission alone with omicron was 40% of that for delta.

MCCAMMON: OK, that 40% difference sounds great. Does that mean that the omicron variant has changed in some way that makes it more mild?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. So that's the growing narrative that the public seems to be picking up on from the media and public health officials, and it's what Fauci also stated in that press briefing.

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FAUCI: All indications point to a lesser severity of omicron vs. delta.

DOUCLEFF: But then, right after that statement, he said something else - something that I think has been glossed over a bit but super key. This lesser severity that we're seeing might not be because omicron itself is much less severe, but rather because it's infecting a large number of vaccinated people. And the vaccine - even just two shots - protects people from getting sick enough to be hospitalized by 70%. And actually, new preliminary data right now shows that two shots of the J&J vaccine also protects against hospitalization due to omicron just as well as two shots of the mRNA vaccine, which is great news for people here who got two shots and likely great news for the vaccination efforts around the world.

MCCAMMON: OK, that’s some brand new data. Where’s that from?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah, it’s a large study coming out of South Africa with tens of thousands of health care workers. It was conducted by J&J and the South African Medical Research Council. And the researchers gave health care workers two shots of the vaccine, separated by about six to nine months. And what they found was after that second shot, the vaccine protected against hospitalization due to omicron somewhere between 54 and 95%, so it’s quite similar to what’s been observed with two shots of the mRNA vaccine. Now, I should mention that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prefers using the mRNA vaccines instead of the J&J for that second shot. But, you know, here’s the big caveat here. Two shots of any of these vaccines do not protect people against infection with omicron, so a large number of vaccinated people are getting infected.

MCCAMMON: Yeah, and I want you to explain more about that, if you would, Michaeleen. Why are a large number of people who are vaccinated getting infected with this variant?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah. So this is the huge difference between omicron and delta. With delta, breakthrough infections weren't super common. But with omicron, they are very common. That's because omicron has a bunch of mutations that help it get around the vaccine's protection against infection. Recent studies in the U.K. have found that with omicron, there will be five times as many breakthrough infections as with delta. And right now, omicron is spreading rapidly in big cities and in the Northeast. And these are places with very high levels of vaccination, so many of these infections that we're seeing right now are breakthrough infections in vaccinated people. And breakthrough infections, even with omicron, are not likely to be severe.

MCCAMMON: OK, so tell me if I'm getting this right. Right now, the data showing low hospitalization rates makes it look like we're seeing a milder version of the virus. But you're saying that, actually, it's likely to do more with our growing immunity, coming from vaccines, that is protecting many people against more severe disease. Is that right?

DOUCLEFF: Yeah, that's exactly right. I was talking to Dr. Roby Bhattacharyya about this. He's an infectious disease doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital. He says data suggests that in unvaccinated people, omicron may be just as severe as variants circulating in the U.S. last year. He says the difference is that omicron spreads much faster than those previous variants.

ROBY BHATTACHARYYA: It's still going to find people who don't have immunity. And in fact, I think it's going to find them faster, just because it spreads faster and it can spread through these vaccinated networks that used to slow things down. They don't slow it down as much.

DOUCLEFF: And so the U.S. could actually end up with way more hospitalizations than the early data suggests right now.

MCCAMMON: That's NPR's Michaeleen Doucleff. Thank you for your reporting.

DOUCLEFF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.