First confirmed US omicron death reported… many more expected

The omicron variant has killed its first known victim in the U.S., an unvaccinated Texas man in his 50s who died Monday after testing positive, but as the aggressive new strain of the disease spreads more Americans who are vaccine-resistanct will perish.

“The death reported this afternoon was of a man between the ages of 50-60 years old who was unvaccinated and had been infected with Covid-19 previously. The individual was at higher risk of severe complications from Covid-19 due to his unvaccinated status and had underlying health conditions,” said Barbie Robinson, executive director of Harris County Public Health.

Omicron has displaced the delta variant as the dominant coronavirus strain circulating in Harris County, whose seat is Houston, with Houston Methodist Hospital’s director of microbiology Dr. Wesley Long reporting on Sunday that the new variant accounts for 82% of its symptomatic patients since late last week.

The rapid spread – less than one month after scientists first discovered omicron in South Africa – has not been accompanied by a corresponding increase in Covid patients hospitalized in the Texas Medical Center, a Houston district that includes 21 hospitals, and scientists are racing to understand more about the variant.

“We don’t yet know how easily it spreads, the severity of illness it causes, or how well available vaccines and medications work against it,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a bulletin. “As of December 20, 2021, Omicron has been detected in most states and territories and is rapidly increasing the proportion of COVID-19 cases it is causing.”

“More data are needed to know if omicron infections, and especially reinfections and breakthrough infections in people who are fully vaccinated, cause more severe illness or death than infection with other variants,” the CDC added.

Word of the Harris County man’s death came shortly after Lina Hidalgo, the county’s chief elected official, raised the area’s Covid-19 threat level from yellow (moderate) to orange (significant).

“At this level, unvaccinated residents should minimize contacts with others, avoid any medium or large gatherings and only visit permissible businesses that follow public health guidance,” according to an advisory from Harris County Public Health and the Houston Health Department.

Doctors and nurses, weary from what some are calling the fifth wave of the coronavirus since the pandemic took hold in the U.S. in early 2020, expect omicron transmission to mushroom as families gather for Christmas.

“There is no question that we are concerned with the holidays. People are going to drop their guard,” said Dr. Joseph Varon, chief of critical care at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, where omicron rapidly jumped from 45% to 82% of its symptomatic COVID patients.

The federal government is getting ready to assist hospitals that become overwhelmed with coronavirus patients.

President Joe Biden will make making 500 million free rapid tests available for Americans and he is readying 1,000 troops trained as medics for deployment to struggling hospitals to prepare for an onslaught of cases through the winter months.

The government is also preparing to disburse ventilators from the national stockpile and the Federal Emergency Management Agency is sending out hundreds of ambulances with paramedic teams, starting with New York, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Arizona, to transport people to hospitals with open beds, should the hospitals in their area fill up with omicron-stricken patients.

Senior administration officials told reporters the first actions will begin this week with the federal government opening new testing sites — the first in New York — in states that need additional testing capacity.

Biden has also instructed the federal government to purchase 500 million at-home tests that Americans can order through a website come January and get delivered to their homes at no cost.

These actions will be in addition to the federal government reimbursing insured Americans for at-home tests starting in mid-January and the 50 million tests they have promised to send to Americans without insurance.

The administration will also continue to use the Defense Production Act to accelerate the production of tests.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will be activating the National Response Coordination Center at the request of the president and deploying planners to assess hospital needs. The agency is already deploying hundreds of paramedics to states to transport patients from overflowing hospitals.

According to senior administration officials, the U.S. government has hundreds of millions of N95 masks, billions of gloves, tens of millions of gowns, and over 100,000 ventilators in the national stockpile to send to states that need them. The Department of Health and Human Services has already sent ventilators to Indiana, Michigan, Maine and New Hampshire. 

While Biden is shoring up hospital resources, the White House also insists the best way to combat the virus is to get vaccinated and boosted. Senior administration officials said the Federal Emergency Management Agency will open new vaccination clinics across the country and deploy federal vaccinators in 12 states. 

Senior administration officials said the White House believes Americans have the tools to get through the new wave of infections caused by omicron. In the U.S., 73% of American adults are fully vaccinated and around 1 million booster shots are being administered daily. Senior administration officials said vaccinated and boosted Americans who get infected will likely have mild to no symptoms, while unvaccinated Americans are eight times more likely to be hospitalized and 14 times more likely to die from Covid-19. 

Biden will not be recommending lockdowns for vaccinated Americans and instead will encourage them to mask while traveling but otherwise enjoy the upcoming holiday with family. 

“What is clear is that we’re not in the same place that we were at — and this is something he’ll reiterate tomorrow as well — at the beginning of the pandemic, thanks to the President’s extraordinary work to get over 200 million Americans vaccinated,” press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Monday. “To be clear: Covid-19 is not the same threat to fully vaccinated individuals that it was in March 2020.” 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has counted a six-fold increase of infections with omicron in only one week. On Sunday, the nation’s top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci warned the variant would become dominant. 

“It’s going to take over,” Fauci on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “And be prudent in everything else you do: When you travel, in your indoor settings that are congregated, wear a mask.”

The U.S. has clocked more than 50 million cases and 800,000 deaths over the course of the pandemic to date, largely due to a botched response to the deadly disease during the previous presidential administration. 

“Nobody knew there would be a pandemic or epidemic of this proportion,” said then-President Donald Trump, who repeatedly disavowed responsibility for the crisis even after disbanding the nation’s global health security team and driving the top White House official responsible for leading the U.S. response in the event of a deadly pandemic out of his administration.

“Health security is very fragmented, with many different agencies,” said J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It means coordination and direction from the White House is terribly important. ”

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