Researchers are seeing signs that COVID-19’s alarming Omicron wave may have peaked in the UK and is doing the same in the US, at which point cases may start to drop dramatically.
The reason: The variant has proven so wildly contagious that it may already be running out of people to infect, just a month and a half after it was first discovered in South Africa.
“It’s going to fall as fast as it went up,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics at the University of Washington in Seattle.
At the same time, experts warn that much is still uncertain about how the next phase of the pandemic may develop. The plateau or deepening in the two countries does not happen everywhere at the same time or at the same pace. And weeks or months of misery still await patients and overwhelmed hospitals, even as dropouts occur.
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“There are still a lot of people who will be infected when we go down the slope at the back,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, which predicts reported cases will peak during the week .
The University of Washington’s own very influential model estimates that the number of daily reported cases in the United States will rise to 1.2 million by January 19 and then fall sharply “simply because anyone who can be infected will be infected,” according to Mokdad.
In fact, he said, by the university’s complex calculations, the true number of new daily infections in the United States – an estimate that includes people who were never tested – has already peaked, hitting 6 million on January 6th.
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In the UK, new COVID-19 cases, meanwhile, fell to around 140,000 a day in the last week after rising to more than 200,000 a day earlier in the month, according to government data.
Figures from the UK’s National Health Service this week show that admissions to corona hospital for adults have started to decline, with infections declining in all age groups.
Kevin McConway, a retired professor of applied statistics at the British Open University, said that while COVID-19 cases are still rising in places like the south-west of England and the West Midlands, the outbreak may have peaked in London.
The figures have given hope that the two countries are undergoing something similar to what happened in South Africa, where the wave reached record highs in about a month and then fell sharply.
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“We are seeing a clear drop in cases in the UK, but I would like to see them fall much further before we know if what happened in South Africa will happen here,” said Drs. Paul Hunter, Professor of Medicine at the University of Britain of East Anglia.
Dr. David Heymann, who previously heads the World Health Organization’s Department of Infectious Diseases, said the UK was “the closest to any country out of the pandemic,” adding that COVID-19 was on the verge of becoming endemic.
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Differences between the UK and South Africa, including the UK’s older population and the population’s tendency to spend more time indoors in the winter, could mean a more uneven outbreak for the country and other nations like it.
On the other hand, the decision of the British authorities to impose minimal restrictions on omicron could allow the virus to tear through the population and run its course much faster than it would in Western European countries that have imposed stricter COVID-19 controls, such as France , Spain and Italy.
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Shabir Mahdi, dean of health sciences at the South African University of the Witwatersrand, said European countries introducing lockdowns will not necessarily get through the omicron wave with fewer infections; the cases can simply be spread out over a longer period of time.
On Tuesday, the World Health Organization said there have been 7 million new COVID-19 cases across Europe in the past week, calling it a “tidal wave sweeping across the region.” The WHO cited modeling from Mokdad’s group, which predicts that half of Europe’s population will be infected with omicron within about eight weeks.
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At that point, however, Hunter and others expect the world to be past the omicron rise.
“There will probably be some ups and downs along the way, but I hope we are out of this by Easter,” Hunter said.
Still, the large number of people infected can prove overwhelming for fragile health systems, said Dr. Prabhat Jha from the Center for Global Health Research at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.
“The next few weeks will be brutal because in absolute numbers there are so many people getting infected that it will spread to intensive care units,” Jha said.
Mokdad also warned in the United States: “It will be two or three tough weeks. We have to make tough decisions to let certain important workers continue to work, knowing that they can be contagious.”
Understaffed hospitals worry about being overwhelmed by Omicron
Omicron could one day be seen as a turning point in the pandemic, Meyers said at the University of Texas. Immunity gained from all the new infections, along with new drugs and continued vaccination, can make the coronavirus something we can more easily coexist with.
“By the end of this wave, far more people will have been infected with some variant of COVID,” Meyers said. “At some point, we will be able to draw a line – and the omicron may be the point – where we go from what is a catastrophic global threat, to something that is a much more manageable disease.”
It is a plausible future, she said, but there is also the possibility that a new variant – one that is far worse than omicron – will emerge.
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