The fast-spreading omicron variant of the coronavirus has now been reported in 50 countries and 19 states, said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She added, "we expect that number to continue to increase."
States that have detected the variant range from Hawaii to Texas to Massachusetts. The reports are part of a new surge in COVID-19 cases in the U.S. that now tops 100,000 cases per day.
While officials and researchers are concerned about the transmissibility of the omicron variant, they also say it's too early to know what toll it might take in the U.S.
Experts say it will likely be weeks before meaningful data about patient outcomes will emerge from South Africa, which first reported the variant. The country has seen an exponential rise in COVID-19 cases in Gauteng Province, the epicenter of the outbreak.
In what could be a source of cautious optimism, the South African Medical Research Council recently said that over the past two weeks, the majority of patients in hospitals' COVID-19 wards have not required extra oxygen to breathe. The council also said that many of the omicron COVID-19 diagnoses arose from what is known as incidental findings — like when a patient is tested after coming to the hospital for other reasons, like a surgery or a pregnancy.
There are also key differences in circumstances: in South Africa, for instance, only about a third of the eligible population has been fully vaccinated — far lower than in the U.S.
Walensky said Tuesday that while the number of omicron cases is expected to rise in the U.S, the most recent data show that more than 99% of coronavirus samples that have been genetically sequenced showed the delta variant. She added that it is too early to know whether omicron will become dominant against delta or not.