COVID infections more than double globally, but death toll stable – WHO

UN health agency says majority of cases driven by Omicron, numbers rising even further after a ‘tsunami’ of disease last week

An unidentified COVID-19 patient is attached to life-support systems in the COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, in Lebanon, NH, on January 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)
An unidentified COVID-19 patient is attached to life-support systems in the COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, in Lebanon, NH, on January 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, File)

The number of new coronavirus infections in the last week jumped by about 55 percent, although the number of deaths remained stable, the World Health Organization said in its latest pandemic report.

In the weekly report issued Tuesday night, the United Nations health agency said there were about 15 million new COVID-19 cases last week and more than 43,000 deaths. Every world region reported a rise in COVID-19 cases except for Africa, where officials saw an 11% drop.

Last week, the WHO noted a pandemic record high of 9.5 million new infections in a single week, calling it a “tsunami” of disease.

The WHO said the extremely contagious Omicron variant continues to define the pandemic globally and is now crowding out the previously dominant Delta variant.

It said Omicron, which was first detected in southern Africa in late November, accounts for nearly 59% of all sequences shared with the largest publicly available global database of viruses.

The WHO said Omicron had now proven to have a shorter doubling time, with increasing evidence it was able to “evade immunity.” It also noted there were numerous studies that say it is less severe compared to previous variants.

Health workers shift a patient on a stretcher at a COVID-19 hospital in Ahmedabad, India, on Wednesday, January 12, 2022. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki)

After a steep rise in Omicron cases in South Africa, where the variant was first detected, the epidemic quickly dropped and experts believe the wave has now passed. The WHO said this week that after a continuous rise of COVID-19 across Africa, cases fell this week for the first time.

Scientists in Britain and the United States say there are early signs the crush of Omicron may have peaked, but they are still uncertain how the next phase of the pandemic might unfold.

They believe that the variant has proved so wildly contagious that it may already be running out of people to infect, just a month and a half after it was first detected in South Africa.

At the same time, experts warn that much is still uncertain about how the next phase of the pandemic might unfold. The plateauing or ebbing in the two countries is not happening everywhere at the same time or at the same pace. And weeks or months of misery still lie ahead for patients and overwhelmed hospitals even if the drop-off comes to pass.

The University of Washington’s influential model projects that the number of daily reported cases in the US will crest at 1.2 million by January 19 and will then fall sharply.

By the university’s complex calculations, the true number of new daily infections in the US — an estimate that includes people who were never tested — has already peaked, hitting 6 million on January 6.

The WHO noted the Americas reported the highest-ever number of COVID-19 cases this week, with a 78% spike, mainly driven by the US.

Workers at a drive-up COVID-19 testing clinic stand in a tent as they prepare PCR coronavirus tests, on January 4, 2022, in Puyallup, WA, south of Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

In Britain, meanwhile, new COVID-19 cases dropped to about 140,000 a day in the last week, after skyrocketing to more than 200,000 a day earlier this month, according to government data.

Numbers from the United Kingdom’s National Health Service this week show coronavirus hospital admissions for adults have begun to fall, with infections dropping in all age groups.

The number of new cases in Europe rose by 31%, while there was a 10% drop in deaths.

The biggest jump in COVID-19 infections was noted in Southeast Asia, where cases increased by more than 400%, with the largest numbers reported in India, Timor-Leste, Thailand and Bangladesh. The numbers of deaths in the region fell by 6%.

The Omicron variant spreads even more easily than other coronavirus strains, and has already become dominant in many countries. It also more easily infects those who have been vaccinated or had previously been infected by prior versions of the virus.

However, early studies show Omicron is less likely to cause severe illness than the previous Delta variant, and vaccination and a booster still offer strong protection from serious illness, hospitalization and death.

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