(NEXSTAR) – It’s been seven weeks since the omicron variant was first detected in the U.S., prompting an explosion in coronavirus cases and overwhelming many hospitals. As case counts start to plateau and drop off in parts of the country, have we already passed the peak of omicron?
The short answer is yes, said Dr. George Rutherford, an epidemiologist at the University of California. But with these types of things, the answer is never really short.
Evidence is showing the U.S. has likely seen its peak of new daily COVID-19 cases, Rutherford explained. Fewer people are testing positive, especially in Northeastern states where omicron first took hold. Wastewater samples out in California, which can show how much COVID-19 is circulating in a community broadly, have started to show signs of a downturn. An epidemiological model from the University of Washington already shows the country on a downslope when it comes to new infections.
But here’s the caveat (or one of several caveats, rather): “Readers need to realize, while it’s going down, we haven’t seen half the cases yet,” said Rutherford.
What does that mean? Picture the curve of COVID cases on a graph. First, the line goes up. In the case of omicron, it shot straight up. That line has to come back down. Rutherford expects the curve to be symmetrical with omicron, he said. So even as the line comes down, the line still represents hundreds of thousands of new coronavirus cases every day for weeks.
While the omicron variant has proven less deadly than prior variants, especially for the vaccinated, more cases ultimately means more hospitalizations and more deaths.
Plus, even as cases start to drop on the aggregate, that impact isn't being felt equally. There are still lots of communities in the U.S. seeing case counts growing. "It's 15 different epidemics going on at once," Rutherford said.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy expressed a similar sentiment during an interview with CNN Sunday: "The good news is that there are parts of the country, New York in particular, and other parts of the Northeast, where we are starting to see a plateau and, in some cases, an early decline in cases. The challenge is that ... the entire country is not moving at the same pace."
"If we sum up all the curves, the latest data has started to suggest we've turned down," Rutherford said, before reiterating local impacts differ. "The Northeast is not Florida or South Carolina."
There's also a lag between cases dropping and hospitalizations dropping. The University of Washington's epidemiological model shows the strain on hospitals getting worse for another several days before the pressure starts to lift.
“We’re at such high numbers that even as we’re coming down, we’re still overwhelmed," Gabe Kelen, chair of the department of emergency medicine at Johns Hopkins, told the Washington Post. "Hospitals will still be overwhelmed."
The surgeon general cautioned Americans from letting down their guards just yet. "We shouldn't expect a national peak in the next coming days. The next few weeks will be tough," Murthy said.
"This is a deadly virus that puts people in the hospital, in ICUs, and in morgues," Rutherford said. "The vaccines with boosters work pretty well. They’re not perfect. If you're older and have risk factors you need to be careful for the next few weeks."
While it took us seven weeks to get to this point, Rutherford thinks it may take us a bit less time to get out of the woods with omicron – about four weeks to be "over and done with it," he estimated.