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Despite surge in hospitalizations, omicron is causing less severe illness

A smaller percentage of Covid patients are winding up in intensive care units, the CDC reported. A combination of vaccinations and a less virulent variant may be factors.
Medical staff treat a Covid-19 patient in their isolation room on the Intensive Care Unit at Western Reserve Hospital in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, on Jan. 5, 2022.
The isolation room in the intensive care unit at Western Reserve Hospital in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, this month. Shannon Stapleton / Reuters file

Although the United States is logging more Covid-19 cases and related hospitalizations than ever, it appears patients are not getting as severely ill as earlier in the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Tuesday.

The percentage of Covid patients admitted to intensive care units is lower than ever, as is the percentage of patients in need of mechanical ventilation, according to the study in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

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About 13 percent of hospitalized patients were admitted to the ICU over the past month, down from about 18 percent from December 2020 through late 2021.

And those in the hospital aren't remaining inpatients for as long. The average hospital stay recently was 5.5 days, compared to 7.6 to 8 days during previous waves of the pandemic.

The agency said the downward trend is likely due to a variety of factors, including an increase in vaccinations and boosters, and immunity from prior Covid infections. It's also possible that differences in the omicron variant make it less virulent than previous strains.

Still, health care systems are overwhelmed with Covid patients, as well as with coronavirus-related visits to urgent care clinics and emergency departments, because of the sheer number of omicron cases.

"This underscores the importance of public health preparedness efforts, specifically hospital surge capacity and ensuring the ability to adequately staff healthcare systems," authors of the CDC report wrote.

The rapidity of omicron's spread is unparalleled. The variant, first identified in southern Africa just two months ago, now accounts for 99.9 percent of all new Covid cases in the United States, according to the CDC’s Covid Data Tracker.

But the meteoric rise of omicron is showing signs of slowing. Nationwide, cases are falling. And during the week ending on Jan. 15, the CDC said, emergency room visits appeared to begin to ebb, as did a surge in hospitalizations.

The number of daily deaths from Covid remained high at about 2,000 per day, the CDC reported. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky noted recently that many deaths are among those previously infected during the delta surge.

An NBC News analysis of data from the Department of Health and Human Services echoes the trend. Though hospitalizations are up 13 percent in the past two weeks, the overall numbers have begun to tick downward. Hospitalizations have declined in 11 states and Washington, D.C.

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