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Struggling hospitals brace for another wave of COVID brought by the omicron variant

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Almost two years into the pandemic and we have yet another sign of its mark on the country. The U.S. has reached 800,000 deaths from COVID-19.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This huge loss of life comes as hospitals brace for yet another wave of illness, this time due to the omicron variant. NPR's Will Stone joins us.

Hey, Will.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Hey. Eight hundred thousand deaths is just not a number I ever could have imagined saying. It's so heartbreaking. What do we know at this point about who has died from COVID-19?

STONE: Yeah, it's very clear that older Americans have suffered disproportionately from COVID-19. About three-quarters of the deaths from COVID were in people 65 and older in the U.S., and the first year of the pandemic was devastating for nursing homes. In fact, data from the Kaiser Family Foundation show about one-third of all deaths as of June were among the residents and staff of long-term care.

KELLY: And get us up to speed on omicron, which of course first hit South Africa and now is just pummeling Europe. How are things looking there?

STONE: Yeah, it is staggering how quickly omicron is accelerating - much faster than any other variant. Cases are doubling every few days in some countries. You can look at Norway that has a population of over 5 million. Health officials there predict in a matter of weeks, there could be hundreds of thousands of cases every day. The United Kingdom is even more alarming. Omicron is already overtaking delta there. And the Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said a tidal wave of omicron is coming. Hospitals there are starting to see omicron patients, but the numbers are still relatively small. Experts say it's a little early to know what will happen, though they are forecasting what could be huge surges in hospitalizations.

KELLY: And what about here? What does this mean for hospitals in the U.S.?

STONE: They are watching all of this extremely closely, of course. I spoke to Dr. John D'Angelo at Northwell Health in New York about this.

JOHN D'ANGELO: I think we prepare for the worst. I am a little concerned with what you're seeing overseas. That will likely happen here, but I guess the jury's still out on whether it will be any worse than we've experienced in last winter.

STONE: And New York is already preparing for the worst. The governor has declared a state of emergency to help hospitals get ready. And it's estimated about 13% of coronavirus cases in New Jersey and New York are omicron.

KELLY: Although, just thinking again about the load that hospitals here are expecting, there has been this hope that omicron, while incredibly contagious, might be milder than delta. Does that say anything for what hospitals might be bracing for?

STONE: Yeah, it's possible. This idea that omicron could lead to milder illness is based mainly on South Africa's experience. There's preliminary data from South Africa that chances of being hospitalized are about 30% lower with omicron. Now, many people in South Africa had been infected before omicron, so they had some degree of immunity. And in the U.S., the concern is that vaccines appear much less effective at stopping infections from omicron. But two shots plus a booster still seems to do pretty well. Dr. Omar Lateef says that's good news because omicron looks so contagious. And Lateef is the CEO of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

OMAR LATEEF: The only reason why there's more optimism now is directly tied to the fact that people that have had three vaccines - two plus the booster - or two vaccinations and had COVID have a higher antibody titer and a better response and ability to fight off the omicron variant.

KELLY: Will, just one last question, which is do hospitals say there's anything different about this time, different from last winter in their preparations?

STONE: Well, the U.S. is already in the throes of a winter COVID surge from delta, especially in the Midwest, and emergency physician Megan Ranney at Brown University says that's why hospitals are so worried about a new surge from omicron.

MEGAN RANNEY: We simply don't have the staffing to create the surge capacity that we had last year at this time.

STONE: And the good thing is, hospitals do have the benefit of experience with COVID, and there are some new drugs on the way. For example, Pfizer has an antiviral COVID pill that studies show is effective at preventing hospitalizations, and that's true even for omicron.

KELLY: That's NPR's Will Stone.

Thanks, Will.

STONE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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