Omicron infection rates may be dropping soon in the US and Great Britain, some experts say — simply because the newest variant of the coronavirus is so incredibly contagious that it will run out of individuals to infect.
With the most recent infection spikes looking like stalagmites, soaring straight upward, some experts believe that the variant may have done its worst in the UK already and could be heading in a downward trajectory.
And the same might be true for the United States as well, as it grapples with huge numbers of people testing positive for the virus, stopping them from taking part in activities and doing their work.
The world finds itself in an unprecedented place, barely six weeks after the first reports of Omicron surfacing in South Africa.
“It’s going to come down as fast as it went up,” says Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, in an interview with the Associated Press.
However, the plateauing that many hoped would portend a diminishment of the virus is not occurring everywhere at the same time — or even at the same pace. Even if the rate does drop off, there are some tough weeks and even months left of dealing with the aftermath.
Lauren Ancel Meyers, the director of the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, states “There are still a lot of people who will get infected as we descend the slope on the back side,” while she maintains that predicts that reported cases will peak this very week.
The University of Washington’s own infection model shows that the number of daily cases in the US will top out at 1.2 million by Wednesday January 19 and will then fall precipitously “simply because everybody who could be infected will be infected,” Mokdad says.
Using this complex model, he notes, the actual number of cases in the US, including those who have not even been tested — has peaked already, topping out at 6 million on January 6.
A good real-world model is the United Kingdom, which suffered as many as 200,000 cases per day earlier in January but is now recording approximately 140,000 per day.
The National Health Service reports that the number of hospital admissions for adults has begun to decrease, with rates of infection dropping for all age cohorts.
This scenario seems to have already played out in South Africa, where the trajectory of infection appears to have peaked and then declined precipitously within just one month.
Dr. Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at Britain’s University of East Anglia, cautions, however, “We are seeing a definite falling-off of cases in the U.K., but I’d like to see them fall much further before we know if what happened in South Africa will happen here.”
Dr. David Heymann, the former head of the World Health Organization’s infectious diseases division, says that the UK is “the closest to any country of being out of the pandemic,” noting that it may even be the case that the coronavirus was on the verge of becoming endemic, rather than pandemic.
There are of course differences in populations between South Africa, with its majority of younger age cohorts, and many other nations, such as Great Britain and the US, where the population is older. In addition, the fact that it is Winter in the northern hemisphere makes it more difficult to control infection since people spend more time indoors together now.
But the fact that the UK has decided against lockdowns may enable the population to get through the infection quicker, as people are exposed to the virus and then become immune to it.
Other Western European countries such as France, Spain and Italy, which have imposed limited lockdowns again, may delay the course of Omicron and thus delay the immunity that it appears to confer.
Indeed, Shabir Mahdi, the dean of health sciences at South Africa’s University of Witwatersrand in South Africa, says the lockdowns may only delay infections, while letting the virus spread faster will hasten the end of the pandemic. With lockdowns, he states, the cases may just be spread out over a longer period of time.
The World Health Organization announced a total of seven million new COVID-19 cases in Europe in the past seven days, calling it a “tidal wave sweeping across the region,” adding that using Mokdad’s model means that half of all Europeans will become infected with omicron within about eight weeks.
But Hunter and other experts project that by that time, the worst of the omicron surge all over the world will be over.
“There will probably be some ups and downs along the way, but I would hope that by Easter, we will be out of this,” Hunter declared to the Associated Press.
In the meantime, hospitals are still overwhelming health systems that are already stretched to their limits, says Dr. Prabhat Jha of the Centre for Global Health Research at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.
“The next few weeks are going to be brutal because in absolute numbers, there are so many people being infected that it will spill over into ICUs,” Jha stated.
Mokdad admitted that “It’s going to be a tough two or three weeks. We have to make hard decisions to let certain essential workers continue working, knowing they could be infectious.”
All in all, however, the advent of the Omicron variant might constitute a turning point in the pandemic, according to Meyers, at the University of Texas. Taken all together, the immunity that will result from all the new infections, coupled with the new drugs on the market and more vaccinations, may well render the coronavirus into something that we can live with.
“At the end of this wave, far more people will have been infected by some variant of COVID,” Meyers explained, adding “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.”
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