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Omicron wave accounts for many more US deaths than delta surge


Bryan Hofilena, a registered nurse, attaching a “COVID patient” sticker to the body bag of a patient who died of COVID at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Los Angeles in December.

By Maggie Astor


The omicron wave is breaking, but deaths, which lag cases by as much as several weeks, have surpassed the numbers from the delta wave and are still increasing in much of the country.


In 14 states, the average daily death toll is higher now than it was two weeks ago. They are Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Kentucky, Maine, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia.


Since Nov. 24, when South Africa first reported the omicron variant to the World Health Organization, the United States has confirmed more than 30,163,600 new infections and more than 154,750 new deaths. (While the U.S. did not initially identify any omicron cases within its borders until Dec. 1, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has since confirmed that the variant was in the country at least a week earlier.)


By comparison, from Aug. 1 to Oct. 31, a similar duration covering the worst of the delta surge in the United States, the country confirmed 10,917,590 new infections and 132,616 new deaths.


That makes the official case count about 176% higher during the omicron wave than in the equivalent-length delta period. (The true case count is higher still, because, more so than during the delta wave, many people have been using at-home tests whose results are not included in government statistics.) The death toll during the omicron wave is about 17% higher so far than the death toll in the delta wave.


On one hand, the gap between the increase in cases and the increase in deaths reflects omicron’s somewhat lower virulence compared with previous variants, as well as that omicron is far more likely to cause breakthrough infections in vaccinated people, who are far less likely to die from it than unvaccinated people. Deaths also remain lower than in last winter’s surge, before vaccines were widely available: 233,102 deaths were reported from Nov. 24, 2020, to Feb. 18, 2021, compared with 154,757 from Nov. 24, 2021, to Feb. 18, 2022.


But the painful absolute numbers — more than 150,000 Americans dead — underscore the country’s continuing vulnerability. Many disabled or chronically ill people remain at high risk even after vaccination. And when the number of infections is as astronomical as 30 million, even a tiny death rate will mean a catastrophic death count.


Nationally, deaths have begun to decline and are down 13% from two weeks ago. But an average of about 2,300 people — more than the death toll of Hurricane Katrina — are still dying every day.

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