The Omicron wave is currently moving quickly through the United States, but ever since it was first identified in South Africa in late November, there’s been one thing in some people’s minds: Perhaps the variant, which is highly contagious but is thought to lead to milder illness than other versions of the virus, would burn out quickly.
There are indications that South Africa has already passed its peak when it comes to the Omicron wave. South Africa’s government said on December 30 that the country had reported a 29.7 percent decrease in the week that ended at Christmas, as opposed to the week before.
“All indicators suggest the country may have passed the peak of the fourth wave at a national level,” that government said, per CNBC. And this happened without hospitals in the country becoming overwhelmed.
Could something like that happen in the United States? The New York Times looked at that question on Thursday.
Dr. Jeffrey Shaman, an infectious disease modeler and epidemiologist at Columbia University, wrote a guest essay for the Times in which he predicted that the Omicron wave “will differ substantially from previous ones.”
Despite numerous caveats, he went on to predict where he sees the pandemic going in the coming weeks.
“Our models project that the United States is likely to document more COVID-19 cases in January than in any previous month of the pandemic, but a smaller fraction of those cases will require hospitalization. Whether hospitals experience more or less strain than they did in January 2021 will depend on case numbers and how severe they are,” Dr. Shaman wrote.
He went on to say that the peak will likely lead to an average of three to eight million cases in the peak week, sometime in January.
Shaman also noted that while the cases in South Africa may have dropped quickly, a similar drop in the United States might not happen the same way. That’s because, as he said, South Africa has a younger population and is currently in the summer season rather than winter.
“While Omicron is causing record numbers of infections, the hope is that vaccinations, booster shots, and prior infections by other variants will still protect most people from the worst effects of the virus,” he wrote. However, the virus might still affect the population without killing or hospitalizing people, as schools are already beginning to close because Omicron has large numbers of people out of work.
Shaman also wrote that the future of the pandemic will depend in part on what happens with future variants. He concluded that the month of January will likely go down as “an intense month of disruption.”
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for The National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.