The Omicron variant is finally showing signs of receding in the U.S as new daily deaths, the most important metric in the pandemic that often lags behind cases, have steadied over the past week – despite the White House’s grim projection that between 60,000 and 300,000 Americans could die from the virus by March.
Cases in the U.S. are starting to decline, another sign the peak has been reached. The nation only recorded 1.06 million new cases on Tuesday despite having three days worth of backlogged cases from the holiday weekend. For comparison, the country logged 1.36 million cases on Monday, January 10, despite having only two days worth of backlog to report on that day.
This time last week, the nation was recording 751,313 cases per day, compared to 727,771 as if Tuesday morning – a three percent week-over-week decrease. Over the past two weeks – generally the standard in calculating Covid case change – cases have increased by 28 percent, from an average of 565,042 cases on January 4.
It appears that the U.S. is finally in the midst of the peak that experts and officials have predicted for weeks. As what was seen in the UK, South Africa, and other countries, the Omicron surge quickly ran out of steam and now seems to be faltering. Deaths often lag behind new cases, and it is likely that figure will begin to decrease over time as well.
Despite the peak seemingly being here now, some officials are still releasing grim predictions about the future. During a briefing on Tuesday, White House officials cited projections that have between 58,000 to 305,000 Americans succumbing to the virus between now and mid-March. In order to reach the top of that projection, the U.S. would have to average around 5,000 deaths per day over the next two months – a figure that would shatter the record of around 3,200 deaths per day this time last year.
The projection seems bizarre and disconnected from the current state of the pandemic in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released data last week estimating the Omicron variant is 91 percent less deadly than the Delta strain the dominated the latter half of 2021. Data revealed by the agency last week also shows that 99.5 percent of sequenced Covid cases in the U.S. are of the Omicron variant – with Delta making up around 0.3 percent of cases.
Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, even blamed recent increases in Covid deaths suffered by the U.S. on the barely-prevalent Delta variant last week. If the variant is responsible for a large portion of deaths in the country – and its prevalence is shrinking – then hitting the top end of the projection would require a major shift in the nature of the pandemic in the coming weeks.
Covid cases are now dropping in seven U.S. states and the District of Columbia over the past two weeks. No U.S. state is recording a two-week increase of cases of more than 300 percent either, with cases only doubling during that period in 21 states. Just last week, cases were increasing everywhere in the nation with only few states not recording a 100 percent change in cases over two weeks.
The U.S. often trails behind the UK by a few weeks, and the country has now recorded day-to-day hospitalizations decreases for 13 days in a row. Cases are also down 22 percent over the past two weeks, with the country logging 94,432 new cases Tuesday.
Britain’s situation is so rosy at the moment that there are rumors Prime Minister Boris Johnson could drop all Covid restrictions as early as March.
South Africa, the first country to experience a surge caused by the variant, has also seen cases rapidly decline in recent weeks after peaking in late December. The country is averaging 4,300 cases per day, a far fall from the 23,000 daily case average reached last month.
Some experts are hopeful that this recent decline in cases is going to spell the end of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that the virus could reach an endemic phase at some point this year.
’I think the base case is that this signals the end of the pandemic phase of this virus,’ Scott Gottlieb, former chief of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and current board member at Pfizer, told CNBC’s the Squawk Box on Tuesday.
He said that the nature of the virus has continued to ‘drift’, with the virus slowly evolving over time and appearing as different variants. Gottlieb said that unless the virus makes a dramatic shift – like it did going from Delta to Omicron – it should be able to be controlled.
The Omicron strain is the mutated version of Covid discovered yet, with more than 50 mutations, including dozens on the spike protein. Its mutations have allowed for it to rapidly transmit around the world and evade protection provided by the existing vaccines.
Omicron also seems to be the most mild strain yet, with the death toll from the variant still remaining lower than it was for the Delta variant despite causing four times as many daily cases at its peak.
The rampant spread of Omicron in the U.S., and around the world, has largely wiped out Delta and muted the danger of the virus overall, since the more-mild variant has managed to overtake all of its more dangerous predecessors.
The Omicron variant (purple) makes up 99.5% of active Covid cases in the U.S., with Delta (orange) making up around 0.5%, according to CDC data
Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, warns that Omicron becoming the final variant of the pandemic is not a guarantee. Earlier this week he warned that a variant of the virus that can evade the natural immunity provided by previous infection could potentially emerge in the future, dampening hopes of entering the endemic virus stage.
‘I would hope that that’s the case. But that would only be the case if we don’t get another variant that eludes the immune response of the prior variant,’ Fauci said at a Davos Agenda virtual event this week.
Fauci has previously made grim projections about new COVID variants, and was ultimately proven correct about a variant like Omicron emerging.
In August, when the Delta variant was first rising in the US, Fauci warned that with transmission of Covid so rampant it was likely that a vaccine resistant variant would eventually emerge.
Months later, than variant did come about, when South African health officials discovered the highly infectious Omicron variant in late November.
He fears that there is a chance another variant emerges that has mutated in a way that allows it to get around protection provided by recovering from Omicron.
COVID becoming endemic as a result of Omicron has become a common theory among health experts and officials, and has served as a beacon of hope for the population suffering through the recent surge.
While Omicron now seems to be receding, and showing itself as less of a danger, the federal government seems to just now be responding to this new threat.
On Tuesday, the White House launched a website for Americans to order free at-home Covid tests. Tests will not arrive for days, though, and many who live in apartments or shared housing arrangements have reported issues accessing the tests.
Only four tests are available per household as well, meaning some families will not receive enough to go around.
The White House has also announced plans to distribute 400 million N95 masks to U.S. pharmacies around the country by the end of the week.
Early data shows N95 and KN95 masks – often considered to be the most protective of masks – are required to prevent the spread of the highly mutated strain.
Last week, President Joe Biden deployed 1,000 troops to hospitals in six states to assist with surges in hospitalizations. According to official data from the Department of Health and Human Services, 80 percent of U.S. hospital beds are currently occupied.
END OF MASS VACCINATIONS? 4TH COVID JAB GIVES ‘LITTLE’ BENEFIT
Even a fourth dose of a Covid vaccine isn’t enough to stop people getting infected with Omicron, according to the preliminary results of a trial.
The study of more than 270 medical staff in Israel found the fourth shot only raised antibodies ‘a little’ compared to those who were triple-vaccinated. Participants given four doses were only ‘a bit less’ likely to test positive for the mutant strain than those who had received three.
The findings were true for both Pfizer and Moderna, and will reignite the debate about whether constant boosting is necessary.
Researchers from the Sheba Medical Center in Tel Aviv, who ran the trial, said those who became infected had very mild symptoms or none at all.
Author Dr Gili Regev-Yochay told a press conference: ‘These are very preliminary results. This is before any publication. But we’re giving it out since we understand the urgency of the public to get any information possible about the fourth dose.’
The results came as a UK Government adviser today became the latest senior figure to warn against repeated mass vaccinations, recommending a targeted approach like for flu.
And last week, European Union regulators claimed boosting too frequently could actually weaken the immune system.
The World Health Organization has called on vaccine makers to make variant-proof jabs to avoid countries having to revaccinate every few months.
Dr Regev-Yochay said the decision to give the fourth vaccine to over-60s and immunocompromised patients in Israel last month was the right one.
But she admitted the small extra benefit was not enough to justify a wider rollout to the whole adult population.
‘Despite increased antibody levels, the fourth vaccine only offers a partial defense against the virus,’ she told a press conference.
‘We see an increase in antibodies, higher than after the third dose. However, we see many infected with Omicron who received the fourth dose.
‘Granted, a bit less than in the control group, but still a lot of infections.
‘The bottom line is that the vaccine is excellent against the Alpha and Delta [variants], for Omicron it’s not good enough.’
Official data lists 156,894 Americans in the hospital with Covid every day, though the figure is misleading. Many people who are arriving to the hospital to be treated for other conditions are testing positive while present, and being added to the tally as a result.
New Jersey currently leads the U.S. is decline of cases. The Garden state is averaging 197 cases per every 100,000 residents every day – a 40 percent drop over the past two weeks. Like many predicted, the states that suffered Omicron surges the earliest reached their peak, and are now seeing a rapid decline in cases.
New York was struck hard and fast by the variant as well. New York City, like London in the UK, quickly emerged as one of the hardest struck cities in the world. The Empire State was among the leaders in infection rate in late December and early January. Cases are now down 33 percent over the past two weeks – with 230 of every 100,000 residents testing positive daily.
Also along the I95 corridor, Maryland has seen its Covid situation begin to trend in the right direction after after emerging as an early leader during the Omicron surge. Cases in the state are down 35 percent over the past 14 days.
Down south, Georgia and Florida have seen their cases start to decline as well, down 15 percent and 12 percent respectively. At one point, Georgia was the leader in Covid case change across the U.S. south, mainly fueled by outbreaks in the greater Atlanta area. Like New York, the peak of the outbreak was reached and then a rapid decline began.
Case figures in Florida can occasionally be unreliable due to the way the state reports cases, so the reported declines may quickly reverse.
Michigan was once among the hardest struck nations by Covid as well, and their issues with the virus have been ongoing. Even before the Omicron variant started to dominate the U.S., Michigan was suffering from a massive outbreak that overwhelmed hospitals in the state.
The state has since seen a 16 percent drop in daily cases over the past two weeks. The Great Lakes state also has the second lowest infection rate in America, with 99 of every 100,000 residents testing positive daily – only trailing Maine.
Connecticut, one of the most vaccinated states in America with 76 percent of residents having received the shots, has also recorded a seven percent drop in new cases.
While cases are still rising in many states, and rising by large margin, the levels of growth in nationwide leaders has shrunk. Two weeks ago, for example, states like South Carolina were recording two-week case increases of over 800 percent.
Now, Wisconsin is the leader in case increases, with daily cases jumping 260 percent over the past two weeks – up to 407 infections per every 100,000 residents daily. The Badger state is also now second in nationwide infection rate – only trailing the long-time leader, Rhode Island.
Only seven other states have had cases triple over the past 14 days. While it is still a high figure, at some points last week nearly every state west of the Mississippi river was experiencing 200 percent case increases or more. All of the states that are recording these massive shifts of cases are out west – other that South Carolina which still remains among the case growth leaders at 216 percent.
Oklahoma (250 percent), Alaska (241 percent), North Dakota (235 percent), Wyoming (215 percent), New Mexico (207 percent) and Montana (205 percent) make up the rest of the group.
Across the pond, Prime Minister Johnson is set to drop many Covid restrictions in the UK. Next week, work from home orders, Covid passports and mask mandates in some entertainment venues and test requirements for travel back to the nation for citizens will all be dropped. Attendance limits on many indoor events will be lifted as well.
Many are hopeful that some contact tracing initiatives will finally be dropped come March as well, as the nation prepares for life after Covid.
On Tuesday, the nation recorded 94,432 new cases, a 22 percent week-over-week drop. The UK has not recorded a week-over-week increase in cases since January 6. Hospital admissions have dropped for the 13th consecutive day as well.
The nation emerged as an early hotspot for the Omicron variant when it was discovered late last year. Its capital city, London, was one of the worst struck cities in the world. Early projections thought millions of Britons would be infected with the virus weekly and some feared the National Health System would be overwhelmed.
Omicron receding so quickly in the UK despite the situation looking so dire at first is a positive sign going forward for the U.S., and the rest of the world.
Deaths, which lag behind the other two metrics, are continuing an upward trend, though. The country logged 438 on Tuesday, the highest single day mark since February. With cases and hospitalizations both falling, though, deaths are almost surely likely to follow.
South Africa is proving to be another beacon of hope for Covid struck nations. The nation was the first to detect the variant when dozens of breakthrough infections were found in late November. Omicron quickly spread around the country, spiking cases and hospitalizations.
Cases in the nation spiked from around 500 per day in mid-November to 23,000 per day in mid-December. Once the peak was reached, cases started to rapidly decline. The nation is now averaging 4,350 new cases per day. Deaths in the nation always remained low despite the rising cases – another sign of how mild the Omicron variant is.
France’s record Covid wave seems to be cresting as well, with the European nation finally seeing rampant case growth slow down in recent days. The country is averaging 286,000 cases per day, a ten percent increase over the 262,000 cases being recorded daily a week ago.
For comparison, over the previous week, cases had increased by 63 percent.
Denmark was one of the first countries to suffer an Omicron-fueled Covid outbreak. The nation saw cases rapidly increase, and officials in the state instituted partial lockdown measures to counter the spread of the virus. Over the weekend, restrictions were lifted, signaling the nation is more comfortable with Omicron at the moment.
The country is averaging 26,000 new cases per day as of Wednesday, a record for the Nordic nation. Denmark has never suffered a massive surge of Covid cases, with its record being around 35 per day last winter. Currently, the nation is recording ten deaths from the virus daily.