After omicron’s surge, will variant cases slow down? Experts are cautiously hopeful

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While cases of the omicron COVID-19 variant are surging across the U.S., experts studying recent trends are hopeful the virus is reaching a peak, with a steep drop-off to follow.

In New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and other large cities, total infections are high — but in recent days are falling fast.

“This Omicron wave has been just what we didn’t need to start 2022. But there is hope,” David Dowdy, an epidemiologist with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said in a Jan. 13 tweet.

Looking at data for cities hit early by a wave of omicron infections, Dowdy says “cases have clearly reached their peak.”

“This year has gotten off to a rough start, but there is light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

This rapid rise and quick decline aligns with what health experts have seen in South Africa — where omicron first arose — and in the UK.

A South African study also found that those infected with omicron developed antibodies that protected not only against omicron, but the more severe delta variant as well, McClatchy News previously reported. But the reverse isn’t true, researchers said, and antibodies developed from a delta infection don’t do much to stop omicron.

Because omicron is such an effective spreader, experts told McClatchy they predict it could be a “turning point in the pandemic,” and perhaps “the biggest (step) the virus takes toward endemicity and becoming a seasonal coronavirus.” Or at least, omicron acting as the dominant variant could steer the pandemic in a more manageable direction — more manageable than we’ve seen so far.

Though there’s good reason to feel hopeful, it’s as important now as ever to remain cautious, experts and officials say.

Chicago’s Public Health Commissioner, Dr. Allison Arwady, told reporters on Jan. 11 that despite the promising data in her city and elsewhere, she’s not fully convinced.

“I know that the data is maybe giving you a sense of some potential relief. I am feeling that, but I can’t say for sure that we are flattening or past a peak,” Arwady said, WMAQ reported.

Amid falling cases in Minnesota, infectious disease physician Dr. Beth Thielen told KSTP that it’s not time to get comfortable.

“Europe is not the United States, and the United States is not Minnesota,” Thielen told the outlet. “You know, I would love for that to portend a drop where we are. I think we need to plan for the worst, and hope for the best.”

Even if new infections plummet as expected, the worst isn’t over yet — it’s here now, and in some communities, maybe still to come.

Hospitals throughout the country are short-staffed, spread thin and inundated with patients. COVID-19 infections are up 33% over the previous week, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said Jan. 12. Coronavirus-related deaths also rose by 40%, primarily due to delta cases.

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