Could the massive omicron surge have started to peak?
The short answer is: Maybe. Experts say it could be peaking, at least in some places, but it is still a little too soon to tell for sure.
“It’s a bit early,” says Jeffrey Shaman, who studies infectious diseases at Columbia University. “But I’m hopeful things are subsiding in spots.”
Infections look like they may have peaked and have even started to fall in places where omicron surged first, such as northeastern states like New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, and parts of the mid-Atlantic, like Maryland and Washington, D.C., according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and researchers in those states.
“I think there are hopeful signs in New York at least, perhaps Maryland also,” says Justin Lessler, an epidemiologist at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “But it is just extrapolating from very few data points at this point, so I would be cautious about saying things are definitely going down.”
Others are more optimistic that the surge has started to peak.
“We’re starting to move toward better days,” says Dr. David Rubin, who runs the PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “Overall, I see lots of indications that we’re moving in the right direction. I think we’re just starting to turn the corner.”
Rubin expects the peak will rapidly move across the country from the east coast to the west.
“We’re nowhere out of the woods, but it’s actually reassuring to see the kind of declines we’re starting to see,” he says.
The number of people flooding into emergency rooms in the Northeast is slowing, and the percentage of school staff testing positive in the Philadelphia area has dropped dramatically, Rubin says.
“That’s a clear indication to us the crisis has passed,” Rubin says.
Others who model the pandemic see a similar trend.
“We’re about to peak in the United States and we will come down as fast as we went up,” says Ali Mokdad at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
Mokdad’s team estimates daily infections will peak at 1.2 million on Jan. 19, and the number of daily hospitalizations and deaths will also fall. His group estimates daily reported deaths will peak at about 1,900 each day on Jan. 24. Deaths tend to lag behind hospitalizations by a week or two.
Because omicron tends to produce milder illness, Mokdad thinks the nation needs to focus more on keeping the economy functioning through the surge — by prioritizing tests for those who need them most and enabling people who test positive to return to work as quickly as possible.
“I think we should change our approach to omicron and say, ‘Let’s go back to normal. Skies are not falling. Calm down. This is going to go away,’ ” says Mokdad. “We need to back to our normal lives.”
But others are more cautious. Infections could start to rise again, especially if people start to let down their guard too quickly.
“We have seen before a turn-down only be followed by an acceleration,” says Jennifer Nuzzo, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University. “There’s real danger in giving people the sense they can relax their worry prematurely.”
Nuzzo notes that even if infections are falling, the number of people catching the virus is at record levels. That means it will take time for the situation to improve significantly.
And infections are still rising in many places — including the Midwest, says William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. That means the number of people eventually getting so sick they need to be hospitalized will likely rise for weeks after infections peak.