As the highly contagious omicron variant continues to drive a surge in cases, scientists are starting to see signs that the variant may soon hit its peak in the United States—although they caution that the situation will remain serious even if there is a rapid decline in cases.
When will omicron peak?
According to scientists, the recent surge in Covid-19 cases may start to decline in the near future simply because the omicron variant—which has propelled much of the latest surge—may have already run out of people to infect, Modern Healthcare reports.
"It's going to come down as fast as it went up," said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington.
In fact, all potential scenarios projected by a new model from the Covid-19 Scenario Modeling Hub, whose researchers advise CDC, predicts omicron's surge "to be sharp and fast." According to the majority of the hub's models, Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations will peak at the end of January and then start to decline. However, the researchers cautioned that there is a large amount of uncertainty about omicron that could significantly alter projections.
Similarly, another model from Jeffrey Shaman, an infectious disease modeler and epidemiologist at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, projects that while the United States will see more Covid-19 cases in January than it has in any other month during the pandemic, "a smaller fraction of those cases will require hospitalization." Specifically, Shaman's projections suggest Covid-19 cases will surge quickly and peak during the first one to three weeks of January, with a "middle-of-the-cone" projection of 5 million cases during the worst weeks.
As for what the pandemic will look like in the future, Shaman said that will depend on how often new variants of the coronavirus arise.
What will happen after omicron peaks?
Although experts have said we will likely see a sharp decline in cases once omicron has peaked, they warn that the next stage of the pandemic remains uncertain—and even if new cases of omicron decline, new variants could cause future case spikes.
In addition, "[t]here are still a lot of people who will get infected as we descend the slope on the backside," said Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, which predicts that reported cases will peak within a week.
According to Meyers, omicron could be a turning point in the pandemic. Increased immunity from the record-breaking numbers of new infections, along with new drugs and continued vaccination, could result in endemicity.
"At the end of this wave, far more people will have been infected by some variant of Covid," Meyers said. "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."
However, before a disease can become endemic, the rate of infections has to remain relatively stable across multiple years, experts told Vox, rather than producing the large, unexpected surges the world is currently experiencing with Covid-19.
"A disease is endemic if the reproductive number is stably at one," Boston University epidemiologist Eleanor Murray explained. "That means one infected person, on average, infects one other person."
According to experts, the world is not yet at that point; people infected with omicron are highly contagious, infecting far more than just one other person and spurring the current surge. And experts are uncertain whether omicron will delay endemicity or accelerate it by infecting so many people so quickly that the overall population rapidly develops natural immunity, Vox reports.
"That is really the million-dollar question," said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan. "It's really hard to say right now." (AP/Modern Healthcare, 1/11; Samuel, Vox, 1/1)