Omicron is spreading quickly, but fewer of the infected are ending up in the hospital

People walk past a sign outlining COVID-19 guidelines
People walk past a sign outlining COVID-19 guidelines in the center of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, on Saturday. As the omicron variant coronavirus spreads rapidly, one positive is that a smaller percentage of infected people are winding up in the hospital with COVID-19 symptoms.
Peter Dejong | AP file

As the omicron variant coronavirus spreads rapidly, one positive is that a smaller percentage of infected people are winding up in the hospital with COVID-19 symptoms compared to earlier strains.

Washington, D.C.; New York City; Chicago; San Francisco and Seattle are among the cities that have seen rapid and substantial increases in the numbers of infections. There are also big surges in Miami, New Orleans and Houston.

But Dr. Robert Wachter at the University of California, San Francisco, tells NPR’s Michaeleen Doucleff that fewer hospitalizations as a percentage of those infected is likely due to two things: greater immunity among the public from vaccines and prior coronavirus infection, and that omicron might be slightly less severe than delta.

Vaccines don’t stop infections with omicron, but they do reduce the risk of hospitalization by about 70 percent — with a booster shot, that figure is even higher.

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However, Wachter cautions: "If you're a person who has no immunity at all, no vaccination and no prior infection or your prior infection was a year and a half ago and it was mild, you’re not out of the woods.”

“There is a reasonable chance that you will get very sick with omicron,” he says.

Even so, the rapid spread of omicron — resulting in 10,000 cases in a single day in Chicago, for instance, and a more than five-fold increase in the last two weeks in Washington, D.C. — means a lot of infected people. Watcher estimates that in San Francisco 1 and 20 people are walking around the city with COVID and don't even realize it. They're totally asymptomatic. Watcher calls that “pretty shocking.”

“If you were in a room with about 30 or 40 [people], there's almost a near certainty, about a 90 percent chance that one of them has COVID. So that's a little scary,” he says.