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CDC director says ‘milder doesn’t mean mild’ as Covid hospitalizations reach record high

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Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attends a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing to examine the federal response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and new emerging variants at Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., U.S. January 11, 2022.
Greg Nash | Reuters

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky on Wednesday warned against easing up on Covid-19 safety protocols as the omicron variant drives cases and hospitalizations to record highs, even though it tends to produce milder infections than past strains.

“Milder does not mean mild and we cannot look past the strain on our health systems and substantial number of deaths,” Walensky said during a press briefing with the White House Covid response team.

“It’s important to remember we’re still facing a high overall burden of disease,” Walensky said, urging the public to get vaccinated, wear masks and “remain vigilant.”

There are about 155,000 patients in U.S. hospitals with Covid, according to a seven-day average of Department of Health and Human Services data as of Tuesday, which breaks last winter’s record high. The U.S. also is reporting a seven-day average of about 2,260 Covid deaths per day, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, the highest level since February.

The surge in cases is putting even more strain on the already thin health-care industry. Several thousand workers have resigned in the past year. Those still working in the field have been struggling as they contract breakthrough cases, forcing them to spend days at home in isolation and away from work.

“I know many people are tired, but many of our hospitals are still struggling beyond capacity,” Walensky said. “It’s been a long two years. However, please now do your part to lean into this current moment.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had slashed its isolation time for health workers, and the Biden administration has deployed hundreds of military doctors and nurses to support overwhelmed hospitals, but workers have said they’re still struggling.

To be sure, an end to the omicron wave could be nearing soon. White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said earlier this week that most states will reach a peak of omicron cases by mid-February. Several states have already started to report declines in cases.

Still, on the other side of the peak could be several thousand infections per day in the U.S. as the curve goes down. There’s also the risk of additional variants as the virus further evolves, according to health experts. Walensky stressed that Americans should still adhere to strict Covid prevention measures, like wearing protective masks and getting boosted.

— CNBC’s Nate Rattner contributed to this report.

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