Even lowball estimates show omicron COVID-19 cases setting records

By Nicholas Gerbis, Katherine Davis-Young
Published: Wednesday, January 12, 2022 - 5:03pm
Updated: Thursday, January 13, 2022 - 10:43am

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The omicron variant is driving the steepest acceleration of COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began, exerting titanic stresses on Arizona's health care system. 

Evidence suggests omicron infections are less severe than infections from previous strains of the virus. But Dr. Michael White with Valleywise Health says Arizona hospitals have never been under more strain.

“It consumes a number of resources, it complicates other healthcare, it complicates overwhelming of the system," White said at a press conference on Wednesday.

White says Arizonans should continue to take precautions like getting vaccinated, getting boosted, and wearing high-quality masks indoors. He says even though breakthrough cases have become more common with the omicron variant, the vast majority of COVID-19 patients in his hospital are unvaccinated.

Joshua LaBaer
Arizona State University
Dr. Joshua LaBaer

"Day over day, not only is it increasing, but it's increasing by relatively large chunks, so it's going up and it's going up fast," said Joshua LaBaer, executive director of Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute.

And those are just the cases experts know about.

At-home rapid antigen tests undercut case counts since their results don't enter into the state tally. That goes double for omicron, which such tests, when available, often fail to detect.

"They have a very high false-negative rate. That means that the test will tell you that you don't have an infection, when in fact you may have an infection," said LaBaer.

Vaccinations and boosters are less effective at stopping omicron infections, too, though LaBaer says they reduce illness severity and lower risk of death 3,000%.

Still, one unhappy fact sours that hopeful note.

"Omicron is causing a huge increase in terms of number of cases, anywhere between threefold to fourfold more cases," said LaBaer. “So even if there is a 50% reduction in hospitalization, with fourfold more cases, there are still going to be way more cases ending up in the hospital. And that's something that we really have to pay attention to.”

LaBaer recommends bolstering vaccines and boosters with traditional coronavirus precautions.

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