Omicron wave reveals early indicators of easing in states hit early

A woman receives a Covid-19 test during a drive through the Covid-19 Testing Center as hundreds of cars and pedestrians queue to check out a Covid ahead of the Christmas holiday in North Bergen, New Jersey, the United States, December 22, 2021 -19 test as Omicron levels up across the land.

Tayfun Coskun | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

After weeks of rising infections, the latest Covid surge is showing signs of slowing in a handful of areas earliest affected by the Omicron variant – offering a glimmer of hope that this wave is beginning to wane.

The U.S. has been reporting an average of nearly 800,000 cases a day for the past week, more than triple the previous record set last winter, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. But in a handful of states and cities, particularly on the East Coast, cases appear to have plateaued or been declining in recent days.

In New York, the seven-day average of daily new cases has declined since hitting a record high of 85,000 a day on Jan. 9, according to Hopkins. Cases there doubled over a series of seven-day periods in late December and early January, but have fallen sharply to an average of 51,500 since last week. In New York City, average daily cases have fallen 31% over the past week, data from the state Health Department shows.

“There will come a time when we can say it’s all over,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said at a news conference on Friday. “We’re not there yet but boy is it coming and we’ve been waiting a long time.”

New York is still reporting high levels of daily infections and ranks 15th among all states, down from the second-highest a few days ago, according to a CNBC analysis of population-adjusted case counts. New Jersey also recently fell out of the top five and is now 20th as the state saw a 32% drop in average daily cases over the past week.

At the end of December, Washington, DC had the highest number of Covid infections per capita than any other state, peaking at an average of 2,500 per day. That has since fallen to 1,700, the data shows.

And in neighboring Maryland, daily infections hit a pandemic high on Jan. 8 but are down 27% from a week ago.

In Illinois, said Dr. Khalilah Gates, associate dean of medical education at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, said the stabilization in hospitalizations is “already kind of being felt.” On Sunday, the state reported a seven-day average of about 7,200 patients hospitalized with Covid, a 4% increase from the past week, a more modest increase than the 30% weekly growth reported, according to the Health Department was only observed two weeks ago.

“There’s not that influx that we had at the beginning of the climb and things are just a little bit around,” she said. “And if that goes on for five to seven straight days, I think you start to breathe a little easier and say, OK, like we kind of got through that climb, got through that climb too.”

Cases are also declining in South Africa and the UK, which are being closely watched as potential clues to what could be happening in the US, as they have both experienced previous spikes. Hopkins data shows average daily infections in South Africa are down 80% from where they peaked on December 17 and in the UK by 42% from that country’s peak on January 5, although there’s no guarantee the US will will follow the same path.

American populations have different vaccination rates, previous exposure to the virus, and levels of underlying health conditions, so Omicron’s trajectory could vary.

Certainly, cases are rising in most states, with 23 reporting record-high infection rates as of Sunday, data from Hopkins shows. And yet, U.S. cases are undercounted due to the availability of at-home testing kits, the results of which are not typically reported to state or federal agencies.

That increase is particularly visible in western states, where average daily cases are showing some signs of slowing but are still up 14% over the past week. This has led to a “jumping up” in Covid admissions at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Los Angeles, Dr. Michael Daignault on CNBC Worldwide exchange Friday morning.

“We had this delta rise, it was a rise and then a plateau, and then the Omicron kind of lifted off this delta crest,” said Daignault, an emergency room physician at the hospital.

Caused the increase New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Tuesday and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday to issue emergency orders to combat the new wave of cases.

A steep peak

Experts predict the Omicron wave will fall almost as fast as it has risen, leaving the US with relatively few Covid cases sometime in February or March, although cities are likely to reach that point sooner.

While the threat of a new variant could always change projections, it’s possible Americans could see some breathing space as a large segment of the population retains some immunity to the recent infection.

“Sometime in early March, mid-March, we should be in a very good position,” said Ali Mokdad, professor of health metrics at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. “April, May, we will have reported very few cases.”

However, how quickly cases drop after they have peaked depends on a community’s adherence to public health measures after that period.

“It depends on how high the peak is. And whether people, when they see case numbers going down, kind of ease things up,” said Aubree Gordon, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

hospitals overwhelmed

There is a growing body of evidence that the Omicron variant makes people more contagious, but not as sick as the Delta variant.

Still, there is a record 156,000 Americans in US hospitals with Covid, according to a seven-day moving average of HHS data, up 17% over the past week. A significant proportion of Covid hospitalizations appear to be from people admitted for other reasons who test positive for the virus once in a facility.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez told CNBC: “screeching in the streetlast week that about half of the city’s hospital admissions are people who were diagnosed after being admitted for something else. NY Governor Hochul on Sunday reported that 42% of hospitalized Covid patients in New York were admitted for something other than the virus.

Even if the omicron variant causes less severe diseases, the hospitals can still be burdened due to the high patient volume in combination staff shortage.

“The rate-limiting factors are still the incredible speed of this variant, the number of patients who come into the ER or require an admission,” said Daignault, the LA physician. “And even if we do peak in late January, you still have the back end of that spike for the rest of February.”

Daignault suspects that many of the intensive care patients at his hospital are currently suffering from the more virulent Delta variant. Delta cases could also contribute to a spike in LA’s daily Covid deaths, he said. Still, the CDC recently estimated omicron now accounts for 95% of new cases.

Nationwide, cases and hospitalizations have passed the peak of last winter, but there are about 87% as many patients in intensive care with Covid. The US is reporting a seven-day average of nearly 1,800 Covid deaths a day, according to Hopkins data, which, while rising, is about half the peaks recorded around this time last year, before vaccines were widely available.

While vaccines, particularly without a booster dose, appear to offer less protection against infection by Omicron, they appear to withstand the serious illnesses and deaths that they were originally designed to prevent. While this means that vaccinated people may be contributing to the rise in cases, in reality it is the unvaccinated who are driving hospital admissions.

But the high transmissibility means many healthcare workers have contracted the virus and are being forced to isolate, pushing some hospitals to their limits even sooner.

Although a peak in cases provides some light at the end of the tunnel of this surge, hospitalizations and deaths have lagged the rise in infections. The full impact of the Omicron spike remains to be seen.

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