As infections, hospitalisations and deaths rise in the US, Christmas tours and activities by millions of Americans and festivities are expected to further drive up Covid casualties.

American Automobile Association estimates 109 million people will hit the road, board airplanes, or take other transport on trips 50 miles or longer between December 23 and January 2.
American Automobile Association estimates 109 million people will hit the road, board airplanes, or take other transport on trips 50 miles or longer between December 23 and January 2. (Reuters)

Millions of Americans have been on the move during one of the busiest travel days of the holiday season, as Covid infections with Omicron surpassed the peak of the Delta wave and hospitals ran out of space for patients.

A Christmastime testing crunch compounded the country's problems, with pharmacy appointments in big cities all booked, government sites overwhelmed and home kits nowhere to be found.

President Joe Biden –– who as a candidate blasted his predecessor Donald Trump for failures on the same issue –– promised this week to stand up more testing sites and ship out half a billion home kits, beginning January.

At a newly opened federal testing site in New York City's Travers Park, people on Thursday formed long lines, wearing puffy winter gear to protect against the bone-chilling weather.

"I was planning to meet up with my family, but I might be positive for Covid, so that's something that I don't think is going to be happening," Queens resident Maria Felix said, as she awaited her result.

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Nearly 110 million will travel 

Government workers also handed out home tests to passersby on the street –– but with only 2,000 set aside for each of the five boroughs in a city of 8.4 million, the items are set to remain scarce for some time to come.

"It is so sad that only 2,000 tests are available," said resident Jocelyn Antigua, who wanted to be sure of her Covid status before meeting her elderly parents.

But there was little sign of testing holdups deterring travel: American Airlines, for instance, said it was operating 5,000 daily flights between December 19 and January 1, representing 86 percent of capacity compared to 2019.

"There is tremendous pent-up demand for air travel," a spokesperson said.

The American Automobile Association estimated 109 million people –– a 34 percent increase in 2020 figures –– will hit the road, board airplanes, or take other transport on trips 50 miles or longer between December 23 and January 2.

READ MORE: Studies indicate lower hospitalisation rate for Omicron

Omicron passes Delta

The festivities are expected to further drive up Covid cases as the heavily mutated Omicron variant pushed the nation's stretched hospitals – and exhausted health workers – to the brink.

The strain now accounts for more than 90 percent of all cases in some regions.

Even though early evidence suggests its rate of severe cases is lower, it is by far the most infectious version of the virus seen to date, meaning its mildness advantage could be negated.

According to Covid Act Now, the seven-day average of new daily cases is running at 171,00 –– about to pass the Delta-peak seen in September.

Intensive care units are running at more than 90 percent capacity in many parts of the country, an official tracker showed.

"There are more people in the hospitals this year, at this time of the year, than there were last year," John Carney, governor of Biden's home state of Delaware said in a weekly briefing, where he announced all elective surgeries will be postponed.

In New England, hospitals in Rhode Island and Massachusetts have found it hard to retain health workers, with many leaving due to burnout, Steve Walsh, CEO of the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association told Boston.com.

And in New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced there would be scaled back New Year's Eve celebrations at Times Square, with the event fully outdoors, masked, and attendees required to show proof of vaccination.

READ MORE: Omicron replaces Delta to become dominant Covid version in US 

READ MORE: Will travel bans halt the spread of Omicron?

Source: AFP