Even as they warn of tough weeks ahead and the risk of another, more severe variety forming, world health experts are hopeful that the omicron wave will fade and give way to a new, more controllable 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 fatalities 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 forecasts have shattered in the past, but this time they are backed by omicron’s silver lining: the highly infectious version 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 “return to a degree of normalcy.”
The World Health Organization announced on Monday that the pandemic’s “emergency phase” will finish this year, and that the omicron variant “offers credible prospects for stability and normality.”
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 outbreaks — testing and masks, the world could reach a less disruptive level of disease, in which the virus is “essentially integrated into the general respiratory infections that we have learned to live with,” as Fauci put it.
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 initially hit are experiencing the steepest reductions. 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 unintentional illnesses are taken into account, the trend remains positive.
According to one popular model, practically all countries, including China and other countries with “zero COVID” policy, will be passed 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.
Dr. Christopher Murray of the University of Washington, who established the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation model, said, “What do we wind up with at the end of this?” “At the conclusion of the epidemic, we had the highest levels of worldwide immunity we’ve observed.”
According to the model, at least 57 percent of the world’s population has been infected with the virus.
Another research organization, which mixes many models and shares its estimates with the White House, anticipates a sharp drop in U.S. infections by April unless a new strain arises that can evade rising protection levels.
“It would be hazardous to forget about that potential,” said Katriona Shea of Pennsylvania State University, who leads the team that puts the models together.
She also mentioned that, according to forecasts, 16,000 to 98,000 more Americans will die before the omicron wave is through. The death toll in the United States is approaching 870,000.
“Even if we anticipate a more positive future,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, head of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, “right now we still have a lot of COVID spreading, a lot of pressure in our hospital systems, and our mortality haven’t yet peaked.”
“There’s still a lot of agony until omicron runs its course,” she said, adding, “but it’s highly likely that omicron will represent a turning point in our relationship with this virus.”