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‘Exponential’ rise in Omicron cases in Mass. and other states already underway, medical experts say

A passer-by walks past a sign that calls attention to COVID-19 testing while leaving a Walgreens.Steven Senne/Associated Press

Public health specialists with the Harvard Medical School-led Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness on Monday sounded the alarm on Omicron, telling reporters that cases of the highly transmissible COVID-19 variant are mounting in the region as federal officials announced that it accounted for nearly three-fourths of new infections.

Dr. Jake Lemieux, an infectious disease specialist at Mass. General Hospital, told reporters during a remote consortium briefing that there’s been “an exponential rise of Omicron everywhere” throughout New England.

“What we’re seeing is an exponential rise in cases in all states, with particularly high prevalence in Connecticut, in New York, Massachusetts, and prevalence rising everywhere,” Lemieux said. “It’s clear that we are now waist-deep in the Omicron wave throughout the region, and Omicron is washing over us. The question is, where is this wave going to carry us? How severe is it going to be?”

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He said we can bank on rising case numbers.

“I think that we know that case counts are going to rise a lot, beyond already what they are from a second Delta [variant] surge,” Lemieux said.

On Monday, in its first COVID-19 report since Friday, the state reported 13,717 new confirmed coronavirus cases and 28 new confirmed coronavirus deaths.

Meanwhile, federal health officials on Monday said the Omicron variant accounted for 73 percent of new infections across the country last week, making it the dominant version of the coronavirus in the US.

Medical professionals, Lemieux said, are wondering how the Omicron surge will affect the healthcare system.

“That’s what we have a lot of uncertainty about,” Lemieux said. “But I think we need to prepare for the possibility that this could be a substantial impact. Because, again, there was already a lot of stress on our hospital system from the second hump of the Delta surge. So this Omicron wave is going to be a surge on an already devastating surge.”

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The state Department of Public Health was reporting Monday afternoon that 93 percent of medical and surgical beds were occupied at Massachusetts hospitals, and 86 percent of ICU beds were filled. The agency updates the figures weekdays by 5 p.m.

Also during Monday’s consortium briefing, Dr. Galit Alter, a Harvard Medical School professor and principal investigator at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard, addressed the question of vaccine efficacy on the Omicron variant.

Her analysis was sobering.

“The data is really grim,” Alter said. “And it is consistently clear that this variant is able to quite effectively counter and evade neutralizing antibodies induced by all platforms“ including vaccines.

But not everything about Omicron’s grim.

“Despite the fact that we may not have boosters everywhere in the world, and that we don’t necessarily have very, very high levels of antibodies in all populations globally ... we are seeing milder disease,” Alter said. “And so what this tells us is that there are other arms of the immune system like T cells and other functions of the immune response induced by vaccines, or natural infection, that seem to be able to grab hold and control and clear this virus.”

In addition, reporters heard from Dr. Salim Abdool Karim, clinical infectious disease epidemiologist and director of the Centre for the AIDS Program of Research in South Africa. He said the hospital admission rate in South Africa, where Omicron was first detected, for patients contracting the variant has been low, compared to the rates for earlier variants.

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“So even though we’ve seen a lot of [Omicron] cases, very few are being admitted,” he said. “And among those who are admitted, a lower proportion of those patients meet the criteria for severe infection. ... The case fatality rate is almost tenfold lower with Omicron than what we’ve seen with Beta variant or with the Delta variant.”

Globe correspondent Nick Stoico contributed to this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.