The Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 is rapidly spreading throughout the US, but early indications suggest it might be less dangerous than the Delta variant, which continues to drive a surge of hospitalizations, US health officials said on Sunday.
US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Anthony Fauci told CNN’s State of the Union that scientists need more information before drawing conclusions about Omicron’s severity.
Reports from South Africa, where it emerged and is becoming the dominant strain, suggest that hospitalization rates have not increased alarmingly.
“Thus far, it does not look like there’s a great degree of severity to it,” Fauci said. “But we have really got to be careful before we make any determinations that it is less severe or it really doesn’t cause any severe illness, comparable to Delta.”
Fauci said that US President Joe Biden’s administration is considering lifting travel restrictions against noncitizens entering the US from several African countries.
They were imposed as the Omicron variant exploded in the region, but UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has blasted such measures as “travel apartheid.”
“Hopefully we’ll be able to lift that ban in a quite reasonable period of time,” Fauci said. “We all feel very badly about the hardship that has been put on not only on South Africa, but the other African countries.”
Although Omicron had been detected in about one-third of US states as of Sunday, Delta remains the dominant variant of SARS-CoV-2, making up more than 99 percent of cases and driving a surge of hospitalizations in the north.
US National Guard teams have been sent to help overwhelmed hospitals in western New York, and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker issued an emergency order requiring hospitals facing limited patient capacity to reduce scheduled procedures that are not urgent.
US officials continued urging people to be vaccinated and receive booster shots, as well as take precautions such as wearing masks when among strangers indoors.
Even if the Omicron variant proves less dangerous than Delta, it remains problematic, WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove told CBS’ Face the Nation.
“Even if we have a large number of cases that are mild, some of those individuals will need hospitalizations,” she said. “They will need to go into [an] ICU [intensive care unit] and some people will die... We don’t want to see that happen on top of an already difficult situation with Delta circulating globally.”
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