World health officials are raising hopes that the ebb of the omicron wave could give way to a new, more manageable phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, even as they warn of difficult weeks ahead and the possibility another more dangerous variant.
In the United States, cases have peaked and are declining rapidly, following a pattern seen in Britain and South Africa, with researchers predicting a period of low spread in many countries by the end of March. Although deaths in the United States – now at 2,000 a day – continue to rise, new hospital admissions have started to fall and a drop in deaths is expected to follow.
The encouraging trends after two years of coronavirus misery have brought a visibly optimistic tone from health experts. Pink predictions have crumbled before, but this time they’re backed by what might be called omicron’s silver lining: the highly contagious variant will leave extremely high levels of immunity behind.
On Sunday, Dr. Anthony Fauci spoke on ABC’s “This Week” about a “best-case scenario” where COVID-19 drops to manageable levels so the United States can “return to a degree of normality.”
And on Monday, the World Health Organization released a statement anticipating the end of the “emergency phase” of the pandemic this year and saying the omicron variant “offers plausible hope for stabilization and normalization.”
Fauci and the WHO’s regional director for Europe, Dr Hans Kluge, have warned that new variants are likely to emerge, but with vaccination, new drug therapies and – during flare-ups – testing and masks, the world could reach a less disruptive level of illness in which the virus is, as Fauci put it, “essentially embedded in the general respiratory infections that we’ve learned to live with.”
In the United States, new cases are averaging 680,000 a day, still extraordinarily high, from an all-time high of more than 800,000 just over a week ago.
The places in the US where omicron hit first are seeing the biggest drops. New cases in the Northeast are plummeting, while other states – Arizona, Texas, Oregon, Kansas and North Dakota among them – are still awaiting help.
New hospital admissions in the United States of patients with confirmed COVID-19 are also down. They’re averaging nearly 20,000 a day, down about 7% from the previous week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
These figures include patients who went to hospital for other reasons and tested positive. But even after accounting for these accidental infections, the trend is encouraging.
An influential model projects that almost all nations will have passed the omicron wave by mid-March, including China and other countries with “zero COVID” policies. The wave will leave behind high levels of immunity – both against infection and vaccination – which could lead to low levels of transmission for several weeks or months.
“What do we end up with at the end of this?” said Dr. Christopher Murray of the University of Washington, who developed the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s closely watched model. “We are left with the highest global immunity levels we have seen in the pandemic.”
The model estimates that 57% of the world’s population has already been infected with the virus at least once.
Another research group, which combines multiple models and shares projections with the White House, predicts a sharp drop in US infections by April unless a new variant emerges that can circumvent rising levels of immunity.
“It would be dangerous to overlook this possibility, because it has surprised us before,” said Katriona Shea of Pennsylvania State University, leader of the team that brings the models together.
She also noted that projections show an additional 16,000 to 98,000 Americans die before the omicron wave ends. The death toll in the United States stands at nearly 870,000.
“Even though we project a more optimistic future, right now we still have a lot of COVID spread, a lot of strain in our hospital systems, and our deaths haven’t peaked yet,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, director from 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 our relationship with this virus.”
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