Even as they warn of difficult weeks ahead and the risk of another, more severe variant surfacing, world health officials are hopeful that the omicron wave will fade and give way to a new, more manageable phase of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Cases in the United States have peaked and are swiftly declining, similar to what has happened in the United Kingdom and South Africa, with researchers predicting a period of low spread in several nations by the end of March. Though the number of deaths in the United States continues to rise (at 2,000 per day), new hospital admissions have begun to decline, and deaths are likely to follow.
Following two years of coronavirus suffering, favorable trends have prompted a significantly optimistic tone from health specialists. Rosy predictions have shattered in the past, but this time they are backed by omicron’s silver lining: the highly contagious type will leave exceptionally high levels of immunity behind.
On ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci discussed a “best-case scenario” in which COVID-19 levels drop to acceptable levels, allowing the United States to “back to a degree of normality.”
The World Health Organization announced on Monday that the pandemic’s “emergency phase” will finish this year, and that the omicron variant “offers plausible hope for stabilization and normalization.”
Both Fauci and the WHO’s Europe regional director, Dr. Hans Kluge, warned that new variants are likely to emerge, but that with vaccination, new drug therapies, and — during surges — testing and masks, the world could reach a less disruptive level of disease in which the virus is, as Fauci put it, “essentially integrated into the general respiratory infections that we have learned to live with.”
In the United States, new cases are still averaging 680,000 a day, down from an all-time high of over 800,000 just over a week ago.
The areas of the United States where omicron first struck are seeing the highest declines. New cases are on the rise in the Northeast, while other states — including Arizona, Texas, Oregon, Kansas, and North Dakota — are still waiting for help.
New COVID-19-positive hospital admissions in the United States are also on the decline. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, they are averaging over 20,000 each day, down about 7% from the previous week.
Patients who were admitted to the hospital for other reasons and tested positive are included in those figures. Even when these accidental infections are taken into account, the trend remains positive.
According to one influential model, practically all countries, including China and other countries with “zero COVID” policy, will be past the omicron wave by mid-March. High levels of immunity, both from infection and vaccination, will be left behind by the wave, potentially leading to low levels of transmission for weeks or months.
“What do we end up with at the end of this?” said Dr. Christopher Murray of the University of Washington. “We end up with the highest levels of global immunity that we’ve seen in the pandemic.”
According to the model, at least 57% of the world’s population has been infected with the virus.
Another research group, which mixes many models and shares its estimates with the White House, predicts a sharp drop in U.S. infections by April unless a new strain emerges that can evade rising protection levels.
“It would be dangerous to forget that possibility, as it has caught us before,” said Katriona Shea of Pennsylvania State University, a leader of the team that pulls together the models.
She also mentioned that, according to forecasts, 16,000 to 98,000 more Americans will die before the omicron wave is over. The death toll in the United States is approaching 870,000.
“Even if we project a more optimistic future, right now we still have a lot of COVID spreading, a lot of strain in our hospital systems, and our deaths have not yet peaked,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium.
“There’s still a lot of pain before omicron has run its course,” she said, but added: “It’s very plausible that omicron will be a turning point in terms of our relationship with this virus.”