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Health officials warn it could be weeks before U.S. sees downward trend in COVID cases: "We are in a perfect storm"

New COVID pill offers hope amid grim forecast
Newly approved COVID pill offers another weapon in fight against pandemic 02:46

In the last three days, there were at least 671,000 new cases of COVID-19 in the United States, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts believe it could be weeks before the country sees a downward trend. 

Meanwhile, more studies are emerging about the Omicron variant from several universities overseas. According to data from these studies, Omicron cases appear to less severe, but health officials still anticipate a spike in hospitalizations as the highly contagious variant spreads.

Across the U.S. some hospitals and other medical facilities are already overwhelmed. Nearly 20% of urgent care centers temporarily closed in the New York area Wednesday because of staffing issues. 

Michigan is seeing one of the worst COVID surges in the country. Governor Gretchen Whitmer sought assistance from the federal government after hospitals in the state, like Beaumont Dearborn Hospital, became overwhelmed by the number of patients needing treatment. The ICU at Beaumont Dearborn is at 98% capacity and the coronavirus accounts for most of those cases. 

Mary Ellen Kochis Rouillard, chief nursing officer at the Dearborn hospital, is now working alongside a team of U.S. military members. She described to CBS News' Nancy Chen what her fears are for the upcoming days and weeks.  

"It's really the unknown. We are in a perfect storm," Rouillard said. 

There is some evidence in studies from South Africa and the U.K. suggesting hospitalization rates may be lower for people infected with the Omicron variant. But experts say many people are still at risk.

"If you are unvaccinated, don't think that it's going to be a milder version of this virus. You shouldn't assume that at all. It could be really dangerous to do that," said CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook. 

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told "CBS Mornings" on Wednesday that the agency is looking to see if it can ease the CDC's current COVID-19 isolation guidelines for those who test positive. Health officials believe shortening the 10-day isolation period could help bolster hospital staffing. 

"If you are vaccinated, and you are boosted, and you get infected, the virus may not be staying with you for a longer time for 10 days. And we need you to come back to work," said Dr. Ali Mokdad, chief strategy officer for Population Health at the University of Washington.  

According to three federal officials, the CDC will likely issue new guidance for health care workers who test positive for COVID-19 — potentially lowering the required time in isolation to 5 to 7 days instead of 10 days. Similar guidance may ultimately be expanded to a larger population.

In a major milestone in the fight against COVID, the Food and Drug Administration announced Wednesday it has authorized Pfizer's antiviral pills to treat COVID-19.

The agency found Pfizer's 5-day series of 30 pills, which can be taken at home, significantly reduced the chances of hospitalization for those at risk of serious illness if taken soon after symptoms develop.

"It almost certainly will be a physician writing a prescription for someone who, within the first three days of notable symptoms of COVID, and is in a high risk group, to get it," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden's chief medical adviser. 

The White House warns the antiviral pills will not be widely available for months and that the pills are not a substitute for a COVID vaccine, which remain effective at preventing hospitalization or death.

As families travel and gather for Christmas, health officials are reminding everyone to take precautions, including wearing masks and getting tested. 

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