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January 12 coronavirus pandemic and Omicron variant news

The number of Covid-19 cases in the US military more than doubled in one week, according to the latest data from the Defense Department, continuing a trend that began during the holiday season.

On Wednesday, the department reported 32,912 cases of Covid-19 in service members around the world, marking a dramatic increase from one week earlier, when there were 13,940 cases across the military. Just before Christmas, the number was a far lower 5,285 cases.

Despite the increase in cases, hospitalizations have not jumped at the same rate, increasing only slightly from 2,333 members of the military in the hospital last week to 2,378 this week.

The Defense Department does not test specifically for the Omicron variant rapidly spreading around the world, but officials say there is every reason to believe the highly contagious variant is responsible for the soaring case numbers.

As of mid-December, more than 97% of the active-duty military had received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine mandated by the military. Approximately 90% of the total force, including Guard and Reserves, had received at least one dose, while nearly 75% was fully vaccinated. 

The rise in case numbers comes as the military is increasing health restrictions in several places. The Pentagon moved to Health Protection Condition (HPCON) Charlie, limiting occupancy of office space to 25% or less.  

Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio has moved to the highest level of health protection measures – HPCON Delta – which includes allowing only 15% of the staff in the workplace at a time. The move comes as positivity rates have increased in the region, the Air Force said. It is currently the only major US military installation rated as Delta.

In Japan, US forces are now largely confined to base except for mandatory travel circumstances. And at the Pentagon, stronger health protection measures have also been put into place.

Some background: The military also saw a rise in deaths due to Covid-19 in September and October as the Delta variant surged, according to Defense Department statistics. As of Sept. 1, there were 40 military member deaths due to Covid-19. By Jan. 5, the total was 86. 

Defense officials note that most of the deaths occurred in September and October: 18 and 13 respectively. The assessment is that the numbers were influenced not only by the Delta variant but by the fact that the services had not yet reached the final requirement for mandatory vaccination. By November, there were only four military member deaths, seven in December, and four so far in January, according to a defense official. 

One base that has seen a post-holiday surge is Fort Bragg in North Carolina, which currently has an estimated 50% test positivity rate. The base hospital, Womack Army Medical Center, was at 100% capacity at the end of last week, a military official there told CNN.  

Fort Bragg is headquarters for much of the Army’s rapid response capability in a crisis. So far, those units have not been impacted to the point where they cannot deploy, but commanders are prepared to supplement with other troops if needed.

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