(NEXSTAR) – Even though the omicron variant of COVID-19 has been known to cause milder symptoms in many of those who catch it, it has still caused the death of thousands of Americans over the past month.
Nearly 4,000 coronavirus-related deaths were reported in the country Wednesday. While it’s not clear exactly how many of those people were infected with omicron versus another variant of the virus, the Centers for Disease Control estimates omicron made up at least 99.8% of COVID cases reported last week. A month ago, omicron accounted for about 69-74% of COVID spread, the CDC said.
Most of those dying from the virus today were likely sickened sometime in the past month, meaning it’s probable many of them had the omicron variant.
While omicron cases may have reached their peak in the U.S., hospitalizations and deaths lag behind case numbers. The lag between infection and death is usually about 17 to 21 days, according to the University of Washington’s epidemiological model.
That timeline may be sped up a bit with omicron. Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer told reporters this week that people dying from the variant are declining more rapidly than with the delta or alpha strains, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“It means that for the people who are, in fact, ending up passing away from COVID, if they were infected with Omicron, it looks like they get hit pretty hard earlier on,” she said.
The seven-day average of COVID deaths has started to plateau in recent days and may start to drop off soon, data collected by the New York Times shows.
Even as the country crests the peak, the number of daily deaths doesn't plummet immediately. The curve slopes downward, but each point along that curve represents thousands more people killed every day.
“Milder does not mean mild and we cannot look past the strain on our health systems and substantial number of deaths,” Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Wednesday when discussing the country's omicron situation. “I know many people are tired, but many of our hospitals are still struggling beyond capacity.”
"This is a deadly virus that puts people in the hospital, in ICUs and morgues," said Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, in an interview with Nexstar last week. "The vaccines with boosters work pretty well, but they’re not perfect."
Rutherford added that even as the omicron curve turns downward at the national level, that doesn't necessarily reflect what's going on in your community. While some parts of the country may already be seeing relief, others are still seeing the worst of the surge.
"If you're older and have risk factors you need to be careful for the next few weeks," he said.