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Omicron is driving US deaths higher than in the fall delta wave

Omicron, the highly contagious coronavirus variant sweeping across the country, is driving the daily U.S. death toll higher than during last fall's delta wave, where deaths are likely to continue to rise for days or even weeks.

The rolling seven-day average for daily new COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. has risen since mid-November, reaching 2,267 on Thursday, surpassing a September high of 2,100, as the delta was the dominant variant.

Now omicron is estimated to account for almost all the viruses circulating in the nation. And although it causes less serious illness for most, it means it is more transmissible, more people get sick and die.

"Omicron will push us over a million deaths," said Andrew Noymer, a public health professor at the University of California, Irvine. "It will cause a lot of soul searching. There will be a lot of discussion about what we could have done differently, how many of the deaths could have been prevented."

The average daily death toll is now at the same level as in February last year, when the country was slowly recovering from its record high level of 3,300 a day.

More Americans are taking precautions against the virus than before the omicron rise, according to an AP-NORC study this week. But many people, tired of crisis, return to a level of normalcy in the hope that vaccinations or previous infections will protect them.

Omicron symptoms are often milder, and some infected people show none, researchers agree. But like the flu, it can be fatal, especially to people who are elderly, have other health problems, or who are unvaccinated.

"It's important that 'milder' does not mean 'mild'," said the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, this week during a briefing at the White House.

Until recently, Chuck Culotta was a healthy middle-aged man who ran a power-washing business in Milford, Delaware. As the omicron wave ravaged the Northeast, he felt the first symptoms before Christmas and tested positive Christmas Day. He died less than a week later, on December 31, nine days before his 51st birthday.

He was unvaccinated, his brother Todd said because he had questions about the long-term effects of the vaccine.

"He just wasn't sure it was the right thing to do - yet," said Todd Culotta, who got his shots over the summer.

At a city hospital in Kansas, 50 COVID-19 patients have died this month and more than 200 are being treated. The University of Kansas Hospital in Kansas City, Kansas, posted a video from its morgue showing corpses in sacks in a refrigeration unit and a worker marking a white body bag with the word "COVID."

"This is true," said Ciara Wright, the hospital's coordinator for the deceased. "Our concern is, 'Are the funeral homes coming fast enough?' "We have access to a refrigerated truck. We will not use it if we do not have to."

Dr. Katie Dennis, a pathologist who performs autopsies for the health system, said the morgue has been at or above capacity almost every day in January, "which is definitely unusual."

With more than 878,000 deaths, the United States has the largest COVID-19 figure of any nation.

Over the coming week, nearly all U.S. states will see a faster increase in deaths, although deaths have peaked in a few states, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Maryland, Alaska and Georgia, according to the COVID-19 Forecast Hub.

New hospital admissions have begun to decline for all age groups, according to CDC data, and a drop in deaths is expected to follow.

"In a pre-pandemic world, we see 10,000 or 15,000 deaths in some flu seasons. We sometimes see that during a week with COVID," said Nicholas Reich, who collects coronavirus forecasts for the center in collaboration with the CDC.

"The boil and the grief and the suffering are dizzying and very humiliating," said Reich, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

The White House said Friday that about 60 million households ordered 240 million home test kits under a new government program to expand testing capabilities. The government also said it has sent tens of thousands of masks to convenient locations around the country, including Friday deliveries to community centers in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.

- The national pharmacy chain Walgreens is among pharmacies that receive the publicly supplied masks. The chain has started offering N95 masks for free in several stores as long as stocks last. The company's website shows locations in the Midwest for the initial wave of stores offering masks, but Walgreens said more stores will be offering them soon.

- The leading organization of state and local public health officials has urged governments to stop conducting widespread contact tracing and says it is no longer necessary. The Association of State and Territorial Health Officials urged governments to focus contact tracing efforts on high-risk, vulnerable populations such as people in homeless shelters and nursing homes.

Associated Press Writer Heather Hollingsworth of Mission, Kansas; Tom Murphy of Indianapolis; and Jim Salter of O'Fallon, Missouri, contributed to this report.

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