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Health officials call omicron the most serious threat since the pandemic's start


The drastic increase in coronavirus cases in the United States has largely not been driven by the omicron variant until now. Now it's all around us, detected in 36 states just as winter arrives. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us once again. Allison, good morning.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How quickly is omicron spreading?

AUBREY: Very quickly. Cases can double every two days. I think what's happening in Houston, Texas, right now really sheds light on just how quickly it could take over. For the last few months, the city has had pretty low levels of COVID. The CEO of Houston Methodist Hospital, Marc Boom, told me they were in good shape after a big delta surge earlier, you know, last summer. But what he has seen over the last several days changes the picture completely.

MARC BOOM: We've seen our positivity rates go from about 6% to 20%. So there's little doubt that once this is there and spreads, it spreads rapidly. I mean, this is replacing delta in our community at a rate we've never seen. And I would expect, you know, matter of weeks only before it is all that we're dealing with is omicron.

AUBREY: As of late last night, 32% of positives sequenced at the hospital are now omicron. And Dr. Boom says even if most cases are mild and only a small fraction lead to hospitalization, it could still be hard for hospitals to keep up.

INSKEEP: Yeah, that's the problem. If you have millions of cases over time, you could end up with many, many thousands who are hospitalized. I want to ask about a news item from New York now - Ithaca, N.Y. Cornell University had a quick rise in cases, which is going to be of concern to anybody who has somebody that they love on a university campus somewhere. What's being done to control the spread?

AUBREY: Well, the university's provost, Michael Kotlikoff, told me that they first detected omicron cases on Sunday. They did a bunch of sequencing after noting a steady rise in cases starting a few weeks back. Now the campus is 98% vaccinated, and almost all of the cases have occurred in fully vaccinated students.

MICHAEL KOTLIKOFF: We've been seeing a 50% rise in cases day over day.

AUBREY: So Cornell moved final exams online. They canceled all social gatherings among undergraduates. And they've told students they can go home. Kotlikoff says they're now seeing the beginning of a plateau because students are now either isolated or they're leaving the campus.

INSKEEP: Are very many students getting sick?

AUBREY: You know, there have been no hospitalizations, but remember; this is a young, pretty healthy population, and Michael Kotlikoff says they are keeping tabs on students who've been infected.

KOTLIKOFF: Almost all either asymptomatic or mild symptoms - the majority of students have been asymptomatic that have been detected. But we're isolating those students for 10 days.

AUBREY: Clearly, they don't want students to go home and spread it to more vulnerable family members or friends.

INSKEEP: Does the experience of the U.K. in recent days point to where we in the United States might be before long?

AUBREY: You know, we're typically about three weeks behind the U.K. And what happened yesterday in Britain, they reported more than 78,000 new cases. That's the highest number of infections in a single day since the start of the pandemic. The majority of cases in London are now from omicron. And during an afternoon press conference, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced what he called a jab-a-thon (ph) aimed at getting people boosted.


PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: We're jabbing in hospitals. We're jabbing in surgeries. We're jabbing in pharmacies and in pop-up centers. We're jabbing in shopping centers and on high streets and football stadiums. We are throwing everything at it. And wherever you are, we'll be there with a jab for you.

AUBREY: You know, he's basically saying, you're not going to be able to escape the shot.

INSKEEP: OK, so first, I'm very much in favor of the word jab-a-thon. We should find more ways to use that in the language. But is there evidence that the booster shots really do help against this variant?

AUBREY: You know, it's become clear that the vaccines don't offer as much protection against omicron and that vaccinated people are vulnerable to infection. But yesterday, during a White House briefing, Dr. Anthony Fauci outlined some reassuring data from the U.K. It showed that when people get a third dose, a booster shot, protection does go way back up.


ANTHONY FAUCI: Our booster vaccine regimens work. When you get the booster, it increases to 75% effectiveness against symptomatic disease with a booster dose.

AUBREY: So their advice is get boosted, and when you are out in crowded spaces, mask up.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.