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With omicron surging, it may be another year to put away your New Years party heels

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Now to what is becoming a way-too-familiar headline - cases of coronavirus are surging. Well, right now, they are really surging. The U.S. is averaging about 240,000 infections a day. That is a 60% increase over the last week. Omicron is driving the rise in cases, though there is also some encouraging news - hospitalizations are not rising nearly as quickly.

NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us now. Hey there.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi there, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So fair to say we're looking at a repeat of last January in terms of...

AUBREY: You know...

KELLY: ...Number of infections?

AUBREY: Yeah. A year ago, as the winter surge began, cases were averaging in this same range, more than 200,000 new infections a day. So there is an element of deja vu. But, you know, all the scientists and doctors I've spoken to say we are in a very different situation. You know, about 66% of eligible people in the U.S. are now considered fully vaccinated. And so despite this rapid rise in omicron, hospitalizations are, so far, not rising nearly as quickly.

Dr. Anthony Fauci addressed this at a White House briefing today.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHITE HOUSE BRIEFING)

ANTHONY FAUCI: The data as of last night indicate a 126% increase in cases and an 11% increase in hospitalizations. Now, we must remember that hospitalizations and deaths are lagging indicators.

AUBREY: Meaning that it does take a while after cases surge to see a rise in hospitalizations. But cases have been rising steadily for weeks now, Mary Louise. So Fauci says it's encouraging that, so far, hospital admissions haven't increased much, suggesting illnesses may be less severe.

KELLY: Well - and is that where other experts seem to be landing, this view that, so far at least, it looks like omicron infections are somewhat less severe?

AUBREY: You know, everyone I talk to says the evidence is still preliminary, but yes, there's a growing sense that even as the variant spreads so quickly and is so contagious, many people do seem more protected against serious infection due in part to prior infection or vaccination. There's data from the U.K., from Denmark and in the U.S. too.

I spoke to Ashish Jha - he's dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University - about this.

ASHISH JHA: Now we have several cities with enough omicron experience - I'm thinking about New York, San Francisco - highly vaccinated places that have seen large spikes in cases. And it's been enough time that we should be seeing a commiserate rise in hospitalizations. And hospitalizations are up, but not as much as one would have expected with delta or one of the other variants.

AUBREY: So this is encouraging, he says, but all the infectious disease experts I've spoken to warn against complacency. They point out hospital resources are already stretched very thin and people who are not vaccinated have a higher risk of severe illness.

KELLY: Meanwhile, New Year's Eve coming right up on Friday.

AUBREY: Yup.

KELLY: What's the best, latest advice on what we should do?

AUBREY: You know, this might be another year to tuck away those party heels, maybe...

KELLY: No (laughter).

AUBREY: ...Bonfire attire is more appropriate because...

KELLY: Yeah.

AUBREY: ...The advice from infectious disease experts is that, you know, it's fine to gather with a small group of close friends or family, and Dr. Fauci says the more that your group is fully vaccinated and boosted the better.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHITE HOUSE BRIEFING)

FAUCI: If your plans are to go to a 40- to 50-person New Year's Eve party with all the bells and whistles and everybody hugging and kissing and wishing each other a happy New Year, I would strongly recommend that this year we do not do that.

AUBREY: So make it more of a low-key celebration, Mary Louise. That's the advice.

KELLY: Allison, we will get out our party heals next New Year's Eve.

AUBREY: Another year.

(LAUGHTER)

AUBREY: All right. Sounds good, Mary Louise.

KELLY: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.