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Daily US COVID cases hit record high, as omicron, delta present 'twin threats'

In the states and elsewhere, the variants are leading to what the World Health Organization's director-general called "a tsunami of cases."

James Martin/CNET
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

The number of daily coronavirus cases in the US hit a record high Tuesday, with a 7-day moving average from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing more than 277,000 infections. The previous peak came nearly a year ago, in January. 

The current surge represents a 60% increase from the week prior, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said at a White House briefing Wednesday. But despite that jump, hospitalizations rose only 14%, to about 9,000 per day, and deaths actually dipped about 7%, to 1,100 per day, Walensky said.

"This could be due to the fact that hospitalizations tend to lag behind cases by about two weeks," Walensky said, "but may also be due to early indications that we've seen from other countries like South Africa and the United Kingdom of milder disease from omicron, especially among the vaccinated and the boosted."

Some data suggests that the highly transmissible omicron strain may lead to less severe disease and a lower chance of hospitalization than with other variants. Still, the fact that omicron is so contagious is a concern. Specialists worry that If large amounts of people become ill, many of them will inevitably need hospital care, which will inundate health care systems required to treat not only COVID-19 patients but also people seeking care for other conditions that can turn fatal without intervention. 

Omicron is the dominant variant in the US, estimated to account for 58.6% of all U.S. infections as of Dec. 25, according to CDC data, down from slightly less than 75% the week prior. 

Several European nations, including France, the UK, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Greece, also registered record numbers of new cases this week, the BBC reported.

At a separate press conference Wednesday, World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called the omicron and delta mutations "twin threats" that are "leading to a tsunami of cases." 

CNET's Jessica Rendall contributed to this report.