It appears the latest COVID wave, dominated by the omicron variant, might be reaching its peak. That’s not all good news, however, as it means so many people are catching the virus that it’s running out of hosts to keep spreading it. The CDC released models Wednesday forecasting between 36,000 and 62,000 COVID-related deaths in the U.S. between now and Feb. 5. Acting FDA head Janet Woodcock told Congress that “most people are going to get COVID.”
Case levels in the U.S. have been hitting daily record highs since the highly contagious variant overtook delta as the most prevalent strain, and while “it’s going to come down as fast as it went up,” University of Washington health metrics sciences professor Ali Mokdad told the Associated Press, millions of Americans will still be infected on the downslope.
Mokdad and his colleagues’ model projects that Jan. 19 will be the peak of the omicron wave, with new confirmed daily cases reaching 1.2 million before heading back down “simply because everybody who could be infected will be infected.” The true number of daily cases is likely much higher than the number of confirmed positive tests, as testing shortages, asymptomatic carriers, and people simply opting not to test factor in.
More contagious than previous variants, omicron appears to make the infected symptomatic more quickly (three days after infection, on average), with some people showing symptoms the day after catching it. As with earlier variants, people who don’t show symptoms carry a lower viral load and it is more difficult to determine how infectious they might be, or when, the CDC said.
In South Africa, where omicron was first identified, the wave crested and fell in about a month, and the U.K. appears to have hit its omicron peak, with confirmed cases down 30% from last week.
The good news is that the omicron wave could push COVID to become endemic, affecting only particularly vulnerable groups of the population, perhaps seasonally, rather than pandemic. The bad news is before that happens there’s a big risk of hospital systems being overrun and essential services will have difficulty operating with so many frontline workers out sick.
“At the end of this wave, far more people will have been infected by some variant of COVID,” Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium told the AP. “At some point, we’ll be able to draw a line — and omicron may be that point — where we transition from what is a catastrophic global threat to something that’s a much more manageable disease.”