New COVID-19 cases in US hit pandemic high amid omicron surge

New COVID-19 cases in the U.S. hit the highest level since the start of the pandemic this week amid two highly infectious variants of the coronavirus continuing to circulate worldwide.

The country’s seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases was 265,427 on Tuesday, well over the previous record of 250,000 cases per day in mid-January, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

The surge, driven largely by the highly contagious omicron variant, has forced communities to scale back or call off their holiday festivities. Thousands of flights have also been canceled amid staffing shortages blamed on the virus.

California became the first state to record more than 5 million known COVID-19 infections this week, according to the state dashboard.

The number of Americans now in the hospital with COVID-19 is running at around 60,000, or about half the figure seen in January, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While hospitalizations sometimes lag behind case numbers, the figures may indicate omicron is not making people as severely ill as previous versions, as many experts suspect.

COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. have climbed over the past two weeks from an average of 1,200 per day to around 1,500.

Globally, new COVID-19 cases reported have also increased. The World Health Organization said the number of COVID-19 cases recorded worldwide increased by 11% last week compared with the previous week, with the biggest increase in the Americas. 

Europe accounted for more than half the total, with 2.84 million, though that amounted to only a 3% increase over the previous week. It also had the highest infection rate of any region, with 304.6 new cases per 100,000 residents.

Several countries, including France, Greece, Britain and Spain, similarly reported record case counts this week, prompting a ban on music at New Year's celebrations in Greece and a renewed push to encourage vaccination by French authorities.

Reported new cases in Africa were up 7% to nearly 275,000.

The omicron variant was first identified in South Africa last month and has since been reported in countries around the globe, according to the WHO. The first U.S. case of omicron was reported on Dec. 1. 

This story was reported from Cincinnati. The Associated Press contributed.