At another bleak moment of the pandemic in the United States — with nearly 800,000 new cases a day, deaths rising and federal medical teams deploying to overwhelmed hospitals — glints of progress have finally started to emerge. Reports of new coronavirus infections in a few places that saw a sudden increase in Omicron variant cases last month have begun to decline or level off.
Daily case reports have been dropping rapidly around Newark, Cleveland, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, each of whom has experienced record-breaking spikes over the last month. There were also early signs that cases in Chicago, New York and Puerto Rico were starting to decline.
This was a welcome sign that the spread of Omicron virus in those areas is slowing down. It raises the possibility that there may be a peak in Omicron waves. Despite the slowing down in the spread of Omicron virus cases across the country, some states in the West and South reported 400 percent increases in their virus cases over the past two week. Officials warned that deaths and hospitalizations are still far behind actual infections. It could be weeks before Omicron’s full impact is known in places that have seen declines in new cases.
“We’re very far from being out of the woods,” said Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, the director of the Ohio Department of Health, who told reporters that he was encouraged by early indications of a downturn in parts of his state. But he warned: “If we’ve learned one thing about Covid it’s that it is extraordinarily unpredictable. And things can change dramatically and quickly.”
Scientists in South Africa first alerted the world seven weeks ago to the Omicron variant. It was only a month later that the variant began to spread in the United States. Omicron cases have increased to unprecedented levels over the past few days. Scientists have discovered that Omicron causes less severe illness in many people compared to other forms of the virus. Additionally, vaccines, although less effective in preventing infection, provide strong defense against critical illness or death.
The Omicron surge’s speed and magnitude have disrupted American lives and taxed a healthcare system already stressed by the Delta variant’s fall uptick. More than 1,800 deaths have been reported across the country each day. This is an increase of around 50 percent in the past two weeks. Online instruction has been restored at some schools and colleges, bus routes have been disrupted due to positive drivers and a rise in the number of cases among employees.
Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, the Wisconsin governor, stated that National Guard members would be trained as nursing assistants and then deployed to short-staffed nursing homes. A major hospital in Omaha said it was implementing a crisis plan to limit appointments and reschedule surgery due to high caseloads. This is the same county that sued the Nebraska attorney general over a new mask directive. Officials at Canton, S.D. said that four of eight nurses who would normally be treating patients on the floors were sick with the virus at one time last week.
“What we’re bracing for right now is really doing everything we can to avoid a work force shortage,” said Dr. Jeremy Cauwels, the chief physician for Sanford Health, in the Upper Midwest, where more than 400 employees across the hospital system were off work with the virus this week.
Christina Ramirez is a biostatistician at University of California, Los Angeles. She said that it was too soon to determine where the United States was during its surge. Omicron passed through and peaked in South Africa in about a month, but countries like Denmark and Germany look more like a “jagged sawtooth,” she said. “You get a couple days where it goes down, goes back up and goes back down.”
“We’ve been fooled by the virus before,” Dr. Ramirez said. “The next couple of weeks will be very telling.”
Even though some cities were experiencing fewer new cases, the number of infections was still on the rise across the country. Around 150,000 people are currently being treated for the virus in the United States. This is more than any other time during the pandemic. This data does not include patients who were hospitalized for any other reason and were later diagnosed with Covid.
Several times during the pandemic, cases rose steadily for a time before falling again. Scientists believe this pattern is driven by biology and behavior. People may be more cautious as the number of cases rises. As more people become infected, the virus will have a harder time finding suitable hosts. Omicron spreads rapidly so this cycle could be faster than other surges.
Complicating experts’ understanding of the trajectory of the Omicron surge in the United States have been questions about the reporting of new cases. People are increasingly turning to at-home tests to confirm their infection. Unfortunately, not all of these cases are included in the official data. The case trend lines, which showed rapid growth almost everywhere in the nation as recently as a week back, are still useful in illustrating the general pattern.
In Chicago, Dr. Allison Arwady, the public health commissioner, said on Thursday that she was “much less worried than I was even three, four, five days ago” about the city’s outlook. With cases spiking to record levels in Chicago, a labor dispute between City Hall and the teachers’ union canceled classes for a week. With school returning to normal on Thursday, there were signs of a slowing down in the number of test positives and new cases. However, hospitalizations continued their rise.
“It is still too early in terms of being able to clearly say this is the peak, we’re on the way down,” Dr. Arwady said. “But I think we are seeing some signs of certainly flattening across many different metrics.”
New York City has had an average of 38,000 infections per day over the last week. Although this is down slightly in recent days, it is still close to the highest rate of pandemic. Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York said this week that it “looks like we may be cresting over that peak,” but that transmission remained high.
For the past five consecutive days, the University Hospital in Newark has seen a steady 150 patients with Covid. Dr. Shereef Alnahal, the hospital’s president and chief executive, expressed optimism that the sudden spike in hospitalizations from December has finally slowed down.
“With all the caveats, God willing, knock on wood, we are beginning to see a plateau in daily hospitalizations,” Dr. Elnahal said.
These trends are more prominent in other cities. Reports of new cases in San Juan, P.R. have fallen 17 percent over the past two weeks. New case reports in the county that includes Cleveland have dropped 49 percent in the past two weeks. Washington, D.C. is seeing an average of 1,700 new cases per day, a drop from the January peak of more than 2,100.
“I believe it’s a true leveling off, though still with horrendous rates of transmission,” said Dr. Lynn Goldman, dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.
The slowing of cases in some places did not ease the immediate crisis in many of the country’s hospitals. President Biden said on Thursday that he was sending 120 additional military medical personnel to six states — Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio and Rhode Island — where hospitals had been overrun.
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Mr. Biden also said he was directing his staff to purchase an additional 500 million at-home coronavirus tests for distribution to Americans, doubling the government’s previous purchase. It was not clear when the first of these tests would be available.
Omicron started to rise in the eastern half before Christmas, in many places where daily caseloads had recently fallen. But much of the United States, particularly the West and in rural portions of the South and Midwest, did not see a similar spike until around New Year’s. These regions continue to see an increase in daily cases.
In Oregon, and Utah, there has been an increase of more than 450% in new case reports over the past two weeks. Los Angeles County, Calif. is reporting an average of 40,000 cases per day, up from 25,000 one week ago and 5,500 prior to Christmas. Arkansas, which used to report fewer that 1,000 cases per calendar day before Christmas, now reports more like 7,000. Louisiana has seen both hospitalizations and cases increase by more than 200% in the past week.
“This is not forever,” Gov. John Bel Edwards, Louisiana. “At some point, we will peak out in this surge as we have previously and we’re going to start coming down the other side, but quite frankly we’re not there yet.”
Whenever the Omicron wave finally recedes, it is uncertain how much protection the nation might have against future outbreaks — whether small and sporadic or more widespread surges.
“I think that’s the million-dollar question,” said Bertha Hidalgo, an epidemiologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “I would hope that we would not see a new variant of concern quickly and the immunity we build to Omicron is long-lasting.”
Dr. Hidalgo stated that prior evidence suggests that natural infection immunity only lasts so long.
All over the country, officials who saw hopeful glimmers of hope in their data were cautious in interpreting them.
Dr. Ngozi Ezike, the director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said on Wednesday that it was “too soon to tell” whether the worst of Omicron had passed in her state. Although hospitalizations had decreased slightly in Illinois over the past day, it was not clear if this would continue.
“You really want to see a consistent decline,” Dr. Ezike said. “I will be the first to announce it when we can say that pretty confidently. Crossing my fingers toes, but I just don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.”
Michael D. Shear and Tracey TullyContributed reporting
Source: NY Times