Some U.S. States Still Battling Delta Variant Surges With Omicron Cases Likely on Horizon

Though Americans are looking ahead to the Omicron COVID-19 variant, many states are still heavily battling the Delta variant, with many experts worrying how hospitals will cope.

The Delta variant is responsible for nearly every current case in the U.S., according to the Associated Press, causing overcrowding that increases patient wait times in many hospitals.

Though COVID-19 cases have fallen by about half since the Delta variant's peak in August and September, there are still about 86,000 new cases per day, the AP reported.

With the weather getting colder and an increase in travel for the holiday season, and with the Omicron variant just around the corner, many health officials don't know how they will deal with another spike in cases.

"For me, it's really just, I can't imagine," Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, a family physician in Phoenix, told the AP. "Are we going to see another surge in cases that's even higher than what we're seeing now? What will that do to our health system? What will that do to our hospitals?"

Midwest and New England states are especially affected, but states across the country continue to be overwhelmed by cases. Bhuyan said patients have to wait in the emergency room for hours. She also had to discharge a patient with a blood clot in her lung.

"It's just hard because it does feel like that we are actually going backwards in time, even though we have these vaccines, which are such a great weapon for us," she said.

For more reporting from The Associated Press, see below.

Pfizer, COVID-19 vaccine
While all eyes are on the new Omicron variant of COVID-19, the Delta variant isn't finished wreaking havoc in the U.S. Above, Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines sit ready for use at a Dallas County Health and Human Services drive up vaccine site in Mesquite, Texas, on November 30, 2021. LM Otero, File/AP Photo

"Omicron is a spark that's on the horizon. Delta variant is the fire that's here today," said Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the state Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Maine, where a record 334 people were in the hospital with COVID-19 as of midweek.

The U.S. recorded its first known Omicron infection on Wednesday, in a fully vaccinated person who had returned to California from South Africa, where the variant was first identified just over a week ago.

A second U.S. case was confirmed Thursday in Minnesota, involving a vaccinated man who had attended an anime convention in New York City just before Thanksgiving that drew an estimated 50,000 people. That would suggest the variant has begun to spread within the U.S.

But there is much that is unknown about Omicron, including whether it is more contagious than previous versions, makes people sicker or more easily thwarts the vaccine or breaks through the immunity that people get from a bout of COVID-19.

Two years into the outbreak, COVID-19 has killed over 780,000 Americans, and deaths are running at about 900 per day.

"Delta is not subsiding," said Dr. Andre Kalil, an infectious disease physician at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. Nebraska on Tuesday reported 555 people in the hospital with COVID-19—the highest number since last December, when the vaccine rollout was just beginning.

Vermont recorded its highest total since the start of the pandemic: 84. New Hampshire, once an early vaccination leader, is now second only to Michigan in the most new cases per capita over the past two weeks.

In Minnesota, which ranks third for most new cases per capita, the Pentagon sent medical teams last month to two major hospitals to relieve doctors and nurses swamped by COVID-19 patients.

At Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, where one of the military medical teams was sent, the number of COVID-19 patients has doubled since September, although it remains below pandemic highs, spokeswoman Christine Hill said.

"And it's concerning with the holidays coming up," she said.

Dr. Pauline Park, who takes care of critically ill patients at the University of Michigan Health in Ann Arbor, called the latest surge "heartbreaking." One COVID-19 patient, a woman in her 20s, died the week of Thanksgiving. Another, a mother with young children, is on a machine built to take over for her lungs.

Arizona, where students in dozens of classrooms have been forced into quarantine, reported over 3,100 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, numbers similar to the disastrous summer of 2020. Hospital bed space has fallen to pandemic lows.

While more than two dozen countries worldwide have reported omicron infections, including India on Thursday, the numbers are small outside of South Africa, which has confirmed more than 170 cases. World health authorities have yet to link any deaths to omicron.

Los Angeles, COVID-19, memorial
Almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus has killed over 780,000 Americans. Above, visitors walk around a memorial for victims of COVID-19 at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles on November 19, 2021. Marcio Jose Sanchez, File/AP Photo