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Coronavirus Update: Scientists start to predict that omicron will peak in U.S. in coming weeks, but hospitalizations remain at record levels

A record number of Americans are currently in U.S. hospitals with COVID-19, but scientists are seeing signs that the wave driven by the highly contagious omicron variant may be nearing a peak.

The reason is that omicron has proved so contagious that it’s running out of people to infect, just a month and a half after scientists in South Africa were first to bring it to light, as the Associated Press reported.

“It’s going to come down as fast as it went up,” Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, told the AP.

The World Health Organization said Wednesday that studies continue to signal that omicron is less lethal than earlier variants of the coronavirus, albeit it is highly infectious and has led to many breakthrough COVID cases in people who are fully vaccinated and have had a booster dose, or were previously infected.

In its weekly epidemiological update, the agency cited studies from Denmark, South Africa, the U.S. and Qatar, all of which showed it less likely to cause severe illness and death than earlier variants. None of the studies have yet been peer-reviewed.

But to illustrate quite how fast it spreads, the WHO also said there were 15 million new COVID cases in the week through Jan. 9 across the world, a big increase from the week earlier. The death toll, however, was flat at 43,000.

All regions reported higher weekly cases apart from the African region, where cases fell by 11%. Europe remained the worst hit region measured per 100,000 people, followed by the Americas.

Don’t miss: World can’t boost its way out of the pandemic using existing vaccines, WHO experts say

The U.S. seven-day average for hospitalizations stood at 140,641 on Tuesday, according to a New York Times tracker, up 84% from two weeks ago. Cases are averaging 761,122 a day, up 185% from two weeks ago. And deaths, which lag cases and hospitalizations, are also climbing to 1,736, up 40% from two weeks ago.

With many people using rapid at-home tests, not all new cases are being recorded but experts say the bigger risk is that hospitals overfill and overwhelm health care workers.

“There are still a lot of people who will get infected as we descend the slope on the backside,” Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, told the AP. The university is predicting that reported cases will peak within the week.

The University of Washington’s own highly influential model projects that the number of daily reported cases in the U.S. will crest at 1.2 million by Jan. 19 and will then fall sharply “simply because everybody who could be infected will be infected,” according to Mokdad.

By the university’s complex calculations, the true number of new daily infections in the U.S. — an estimate that includes people who were never tested — has already peaked, hitting 6 million on Jan. 6, he said.

From mass tests to lockdowns, China is on high-alert to keep the coronavirus at bay ahead of the Winter Olympics. WSJ examines the zero-Covid strategy in the city of Xi’an to see how it has sparked backlash from residents and affected chip makers. Photo: Shao Rui/Zuma Press, Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters

Other COVID-19 news to know

• UK Prime Minister Boris Johnsons apologized for attending a garden party during Britain’s coronavirus lockdown in 2020, saying there are things the government “did not get right,” the AP reported. Johnson is facing anger from public and politicians over claims he and his staff flouted pandemic restrictions by socializing when it was banned. Some members of his Conservative Party say he should resign if he can’t quell the furor. Johnson acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that he was at the May 2020 garden party at his Downing Street office, though he said that he had considered it a work event.

• The Biden administration is increasing federal support for COVID-19 testing for schools in a bid to keep them open amid the omicron surge, the AP reported separately. The White House announced Wednesday that the administration is making a dedicated stream of 5 million rapid tests and 5 million lab-based PCR tests available to schools starting this month to ease supply shortages and promote the safe reopening of schools. That’s on top of more than $10 billion devoted to school-based tests authorized in the COVID-19 relief law and about $130 billion earmarked in that law to keep kids in school.

See also: Doctors reveal the best face masks to protect kids from the omicron coronavirus variant

• Germany, Austria and Saudi Arabia counted record numbers of COVID-19 cases in a single day Wednesday, according to media reports. Germany counted 80,430 new coronavirus infections, topping the previous record of 76,000 set on Nov. 26., Reuters reported. Austria counted more than 17,000 cases for the first time at 17,006, data from the interior and health ministries showed. The previous peak was 15,809 on Nov. 19. Saudi Arabia’s one-day tally exceeded 5,000 for the first time.

• Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country has two weeks to prepare for a wave of omicron infections, AFP reported. Russia has lifted nearly all the restrictions aimed at limiting cases, even as cases rise and it remains the worst-hit country in Europe in terms of virus-related deaths. “We see what is happening in the world,” the Russian leader told a meeting of cabinet ministers Wednesday. “We have at least a couple of weeks to prepare.”

During a session of Parliament, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson apologized for attending a party on Downing Street in 2020 while strict Covid-19 lockdown measures were in place. Johnson said he believed it was a “work event.” Photo: PRU/AFP via Getty Images

Here’s what the numbers say

The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 climbed to 314 million Wednesday, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University. The death toll climbed above 5.50 million.

The U.S. leads the world with 62.3 million cases and 842,322 fatalities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine tracker is showing that about 208 million people living in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, equal to 62.6% of the total population.

Some 76 million people have received a booster shot, equal to 36.7% of the fully vaccinated.

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