In this Dec. 17, 2021, file photo, Becky Gonzalez, left, and her long time friend, Mary Lou Samora, a 71-year-old COVID-19 patient, put their palms together after they shared some encouraging words at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Los Angeles. Credit: Jae C. Hong / AP

Virus deaths in the U.S. are declining even as COVID-19 cases rise, according to federal health officials who suggested the surging omicron variant may cause less suffering than other strains.

Cases jumped 60 percent from the prior week, in large part due to the omicron variant, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said during a briefing Wednesday. In the same period, deaths fell 7 percent to a seven-day average of about 1,100 per day.

Trends in COVID hospital admissions tend to follow cases by about two weeks, which may mean that more severe illness is on the way, Walensky said. Yet clinical data from South Africa and Scotland along with results from animal studies continue to suggest a reduced toll from omicron, despite its rapid transmission, according to Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s medical adviser and leader of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“The pattern and disparity between cases and hospitalizations strongly suggests that there will be a lower hospitalization-to-case ratio when the situation becomes more clear,” Fauci said. The CDC reported Tuesday that hospitalizations rose to a seven-day average of about 9,000, just half their peak recorded in January.

Rising rates of immunity due to vaccinations and prior infections may also affect disease severity and are difficult to disentangle. However, Fauci noted, the omicron variant has shown clear signs that it has some ability to evade the protection afforded by existing vaccines. Booster shots can restore the level of vaccine immunity to protective levels, he said.

Even if omicron does prove to be less dangerous than delta, the sheer number of cases could still overrun hospitals, Fauci warned. Omicron accounts for about 59 percent of all virus cases in the U.S., according to CDC estimates.

Story by Angelica Peebles.