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Omicron cases could fall just as quickly as they rose, CDC says

Instead of a wave, picture the recent surge in the U.S. as more of an “ice pick,” similar to cases in South Africa, Dr. Rochelle Walensky said.

Despite the astronomic rise in omicron-related COVID-19 cases nationwide, there is hope that the number will fall just as fast, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Friday at a media briefing — her first without the rest of the White House’s COVID-19 Task Force in nearly six months.

The rise and fall of COVID-19 diagnoses has historically been shown as “waves,” but Walensky suggested the omicron surge in the U.S. may be visualized more as an “ice pick,” with a dramatic rise and fall in cases similar to South Africa, which has passed its omicron surge.

“I do think in places that we are seeing this really steep incline, that we may well see also a precipitous decline,” Walensky said during the briefing.

Currently, new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. are up more than 204% compared to two weeks ago, according to an NBC News analysis.

Record number of pediatric cases

On Friday, the CDC released new data on COVID-related hospitalizations, specifically among children. Hospitalization rates are also increasing among the youngest children for whom there is no vaccine: ages 0 to 4.

As of the week ending Jan. 1, 4.3 per 100,000 children under age 5 were admitted to a hospital with Covid-19, Walensky said.

“While children still have the lowest rate of hospitalization of any group, pediatric hospitalizations are at the highest rate compared to any prior point in the pandemic,” she said.

Indeed, more than a dozen states nationwide have reported record pediatric hospitalizations linked to Covid-19, according to NBC News data.

“This very well may be that there are just more cases out there,” Walensky said.

Isolation guidelines

During Friday’s briefing, Dr. Henry Walke, head of the CDC’s Division of Preparedness and Emerging Infections, defended the agency’s recent recommendations on isolation.

The agency said that people may use rapid antigen tests around day five of their isolation periods if they want to, but it is not requiring them.

The results of a rapid test late in the course of COVID-19 illness do not indicate how contagious a person remains, Walke said.

“Regardless of the test result, wearing a well-fitting mask after those five days of isolation is still recommended,” he said.

Isolation refers to the five-day period after a person tests positive, when that person should stay away from others, including family members. The CDC said people are most contagious a day or two before symptoms begin, and for two to three days after.

The CDC does not require a negative test to leave isolation after five days, as long as patients no longer have symptoms. However, even asymptomatic patients should wear a mask for an additional five days.

Does omicron infection protect against delta variant?

Walensky said that early evidence suggests that the omicron variant may help protect people from the delta variant. On the flip side, “we have an indication that if you had delta, you are susceptible to infection with omicron,” she said.

And would an omicron infection protect a person from omicron reinfection? The CDC is beginning studies to answer this question.

It is an important issue, as the new variant has swiftly taken hold in the U.S., accounting for more than 95% of COVID-19 cases.

“This virus has changed, and it’s constantly throwing up curveballs,” Walensky said. “As the virus changes, the science changes.”

The CDC briefing Friday was the agency’s first on its own since late July. Such briefings used to be a mainstay of public health communication. In previous years, the CDC held weekly briefings on a variety of headline-grabbing health topics: the flu, lung illnesses linked to vaping, even Ebola.

But the agency — historically considered a gold standard among public health officials worldwide — has struggled with its communication on COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic.

The first, and perhaps most notable, example occurred during a CDC telebriefing in February 2020, when a former CDC official, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, warned Americans to prepare for an inevitable life-altering pandemic.

Walensky has participated in regular news conferences of the White House COVID-19 Task Force, usually along with Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden.

But clear, direct communication from the CDC about its recommendations is key for the agency to explain to Americans the reasoning behind its guidance.

“It is important to have access to those CDC scientists who are working on these issues” round the clock, said Glen Nowak, a former head of CDC communications and current co-director of the University of Georgia’s Center for Health and Risk Communication.

Lack of communication “makes it look like CDC hasn’t thought it completely through, or that they don’t have answers to questions related to their recommendations and policies,” Nowak said.

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