The omicron variant is starting to loosen its grip on the U.S. Northeast, but experts warn that it will take more time for the latest wave of COVID-19 to recede nationwide.
The strain’s fast surge and swift descent in one of the most populous parts of the U.S. echoes its trajectory in areas of Europe and South Africa, where infections skyrocketed only to come back down nearly as quickly. That’s raised hopes that while omicron has at times seemed like a replay of the worst days of the early pandemic, it will soon ebb.
However, the shape of the omicron wave may look different in various parts of the U.S., depending on vaccination rates and hospital capacity in those areas. While omicron has been milder than other variants, it has strained health care providers across the country, and infections in children have been higher this time around.
Nationally, the omicron wave could peak as early as this week, according to projections from the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. Still, states where omicron’s spread came later will see a delayed peak, forecasters say.
“Omicron is coming down as fast as it went up,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor at IHME and chief strategy officer for population health at the University of Washington. “We are going to go through a couple more weeks that are very difficult on our hospitals, but come mid-February, March, we should be in a very good position.”
But low U.S. vaccination rates in certain regions have made some experts worry that the country might not bounce back quite so quickly from omicron. About 80 percent of Americans age 5 and older have had at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But some states — including Idaho, Wyoming and Louisiana — are struggling to get above 60 percent.
“Data from other countries are really a canary in the coal mine for us, but really our data are very unique to the states,” said University of Alabama epidemiologist Bertha Hidalgo. “We are guided more by what we see within the U.S. than what we see outside.”
In Alabama, just 60 percent of the state’s eligible population has had at least one dose of the vaccine, and the state hasn’t reinstated COVID mitigation measures in the wake of omicron. Over the past two weeks, the state has continued to see an increase in cases, leading Hidalgo to worry that Alabama may not see the same rapid downturn. The coming weeks will determine whether or not the state’s viral curve follows the same path as Northeastern states like New York, which identified its first case 14 days before Alabama did.
New York, which has already seen a drop in cases and hospitalizations, has one of the highest vaccination rates of U.S. states. In New York City, public officials have also been stringent about promoting mask-wearing, while enforcing vaccine mandates for indoor restaurants and entertainment venues.
Even as infections recede, the effects of omicron will continue to be felt as some of the sickest patients succumb to the disease. The CDC’s most recent forecast from Jan. 17, which takes into account the IHME model and many others, still predicts that COVID-19 deaths will continue to rise over the next four weeks.
Hesitancy toward premature optimism is valid: This month, the U.S. reached 850,000 COVID-related deaths, more than any other nation. And experts have wrongly predicted the beginning of the end of the pandemic before. Omicron was discovered only two months ago, making it impossible to precisely pinpoint the trajectory of the virus over the coming weeks and months.
What experts do agree on is that COVID-19, in some form or another, is here to stay.
“COVID-19 as a pandemic, in the institute’s opinion, is over,” said Mokdad of the IHME. “But COVID-19 as a virus will be around for a long time.”
He said that antiviral pills from Merck & Co. and Pfizer, Inc., along with vaccines and booster shots, will be essential tools in helping prevent future surges. Studies have also repeatedly shown that wearing good, well-fitting masks indoors can go far toward slowing the spread.
Wafaa El-Sadr, director of ICAP Global Health at Columbia University and the leader of the New York City Pandemic Response Institute, said that omicron’s rapid transmission rate helped it to quickly “saturate” the population, infecting anyone vulnerable to infection. El-Sadr said the combination of immunity based on prior infection and vaccination against the virus provides a level of protection — less people are susceptible to getting sick. Cases and hospitalizations may decrease quickly in the coming weeks, she said, but it’s important to start thinking about how to live with the virus long-term.
“The time is right now to try to change the narrative,” El-Sadr said. “How can we adjust our lives in the context of COVID rather than continuing to have an enormous fear of it?”
Madison Muller, Bloomberg News