Is Omicron Peaking?

In parts of the Northeast, it seems to be.,

In parts of the Northeast, it seems to be.

The number of new Covid-19 cases in New York City rose more than twentyfold in December. In the past few days, it has flattened.

In both New Jersey and Maryland, the number of new cases has fallen slightly this week. In several major cities, the number is also showing signs of leveling off.

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Credit…Charts show 7-day averages for New York City’s five boroughs, Suffolk County, Cook County and Los Angeles County. | Source: New York Times database

In Boston, the amount of the Covid virus detected in wastewater, which has been a leading indicator of case trends in the past, has plunged by about 40 percent since its peak just after Jan. 1.

“We really try not to ever make any predictions about this virus, because it always throws us for a loop,” Dr. Shira Doron, an epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, told GBH News. “But at least the wastewater is suggesting a steep decline, and so we hope that means cases will decline steeply as well, and then hospitalizations and deaths will follow.”

As Doron suggested, it’s too early to be confident that the Omicron wave has peaked even in areas with encouraging data — which tend to be the places where Omicron first arrived in the U.S. But there is good reason to consider that the most likely scenario. “Looks like we may be cresting over that peak,” Gov. Kathy Hochul of New York said this week.

(Look up cases for your county here.)

A huge surge in cases that lasts for about one month, followed by a rapid decline, would be consistent with the experience in some places where Omicron arrived earlier than in the U.S. In South Africa, new daily cases have fallen by about 70 percent from the mid-December peak. The chart showing South Africa’s recent trend looks like a skinny, upside-down letter V.

In Britain, where pandemic trends have frequently been a few weeks ahead of those in the U.S., cases peaked just after New Year’s and have since fallen somewhat:

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Credit…Chart shows a 7-day average. | Source: Johns Hopkins University

With previous versions of Covid, like the Delta variant, the up-and-down cycles tended to last longer. Once an outbreak began, cases often rose for about two months before falling.

Scientists don’t fully understand Covid’s cycles, but the explanation probably involves some combination of the virus’s biological qualities and the size of a typical human social network. After about two months, an outbreak of earlier variants began to burn out, much as a forest fire would.

Omicron is so contagious that it spreads more quickly. This rapid spread may also mean that it more quickly reaches most of the people who happen to be vulnerable to being infected by it. Omicron’s brief boom-and-bust cycle is now “a familiar pattern,” Joseph Allen of Harvard’s School of Public Health says.

Ali Mokdad, a professor of health metrics sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, told the The Associated Press that he believed the true number of U.S. cases — including those not included in any official tally — has already peaked, probably last week. “It’s going to come down as fast as it went up,” he predicted.

A bumpy descent

To be clear, the current emergency is not on the verge of ending. Cases appear to be peaking only in places where Omicron arrived early, mostly in the Northeast. In much of the country, cases are still soaring.

Already, some hospitals are swamped, and hospitalization trends often trail caseload trends by about a week. Deaths trends tend to lag by another couple of weeks. “It’s going to be a tough two or three weeks,” Mokdad said. The U.S. seems on course for a horrific amount of severe illness in coming weeks, overwhelmingly among the unvaccinated.

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Credit…Source: New York Times database

(Related: The C.E.O. of United Airlines, Scott Kirby, said that while 3,000 employees recently tested positive for the virus, zero vaccinated employees were hospitalized. That’s a big change. Before the company enacted a vaccine mandate, an average of more than one United employee each week was dying from Covid.)

Still, the beginning of the end of the Omicron wave — if it turns out to be real — would be very good news.

It would mean that a milder variant had become the dominant form of Covid but was no longer causing a surge in cases and overwhelming hospitals. It would mean that tens of millions of Americans had built up additional immunity, as a result of an Omicron infection. It would mean that the country would have taken a big step toward a future in which Covid is an endemic disease like the flu, rather than a pandemic that dominates life.

Lauren Ancel Meyers, who runs a Covid analysis project at the University of Texas, said that people might soon look back on Omicron as a turning point. “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,” she told The A.P.

Of course, as we all should have learned by now, Covid could also surprise again. Another possibility, Meyers said, is that a dangerous new variant could emerge this spring. That outcome is both unlikely and plausible, which is always a tricky combination to understand.

THE LATEST NEWS

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What Africa’s progress on AIDS tells us about the future of Covid.

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Prices rose by 7 percent over the past year, the highest level of inflation since 1982. Used car prices surged by 37 percent.

Rents are up “basically everywhere,” an analyst said.

NPR explains why many grocery shelves are empty.

Politics

Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, criticized President Biden for comparing politicians who oppose voting-rights legislation to Civil War Confederates.

Kevin McCarthy, the top House Republican, said he would not cooperate with the House committee investigating the Capitol riot.

The U.S. and Iran are exchanging harsh words. But talks about reviving the 2015 nuclear deal are progressing.

Poor Americans are eager for Biden’s infrastructure funding to upgrade sewer systems.

Other Big Stories

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Videos obtained by The Times reveal scenes of violence.Credit…Department of Correction

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Mayor Eric Adams named his brother a deputy police commissioner. After an outcry, he changed the job to director of mayoral security.

A German court convicted a former Syrian intelligence officer accused of overseeing torture of crimes against humanity.

Opinions

Pandemic despair is setting in for parents of young children, Jessica Grose writes.

Constructive doomsaying helped keep the Cold War from becoming hot. It can help save American democracy, too, Jonathan Stevenson and Steven Simon argue.

Biden’s push for voting rights may be too little, too late, says Charles Blow.

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An “NBA 2K” gaming tournament.Credit…Jake Dockins for The New York Times

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Bad habits: Cigarettes are making a comeback with a younger crowd.

Notes: Every year, he texts her to say he loves her. Every time, it feels different.

The Coronavirus Pandemic: Key Things to Know

Card 1 of 4

The latest Covid data in the U.S. As the Omicron surge causes case counts to reach record highs and hospitalizations to surpass last winter’s peak, here’s how to think about the data and what it’s beginning to show about Omicron’s potential toll and the growing gap in those vaccinated vs. unvaccinated.

Testing. In the absence of a national effort to make testing widely available, some big U.S. companies are putting their own testing services in place for their workers. Meanwhile, the White House promised to distribute millions of free tests to schools as many districts struggle with execution and resources.

Around the world. A spate of outbreaks in China weeks ahead of the Winter Olympics underscores the challenge of holding the Games while sticking to the country’s “zero Covid” policy. In Europe, the W.H.O. warned that over half the continent could be infected with Omicron in the next six to eight weeks.

Staying safe. Worried about spreading Covid? Keep yourself and others safe by following some basic guidance on when to test and how to use at-home virus tests (if you can find them). Here is what to do if you test positive for the coronavirus.

A Times classic: Learn to love knitting.

Lives Lived: Ronnie Spector was the lead singer of the Ronettes, who gave a bad-girl edge to pop music’s girl-group sound in the 1960s. She died at 78.

ARTS AND IDEAS

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A sustainability label for shoes.

Where’s that sweater from?

What if we could read the labels on our clothes the same way we read the labels on our food? It’s starting to happen: Transparency and traceability are reaching the tags on the rack.

The idea reaches back to at least 2019, when an English knitwear brand introduced a tag on its sweaters that let customers see where its Merino wool had come from, Dana Thomas writes in The Times. More recently, a sustainable brand in Nashville added something that looks very similar to a nutrition label, showing how the making of its shoes affects the workers involved and the environment.

Here’s how it works, and why it’s worth knowing where your clothes come from. — Claire Moses, a Morning writer

PLAY, WATCH, EAT

What to Cook

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Credit…David Malosh for The New York Times

This nutty grain bowl stands out because of a sauce made of nutritional yeast (known as “nooch”).

What to Watch

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What to Listen to

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What to Look Forward to

Coachella and the Bonnaroo festival both announced 2022 lineups.

Late Night

The hosts talked about cannabis and Covid.

Now Time to Play

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The pangram from yesterday’s Spelling Bee was expletive. Here is today’s puzzle — or you can play online.

Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Get a look at (three letters).

If you’re in the mood to play more, find all our games here.

Thanks for spending part of your morning with The Times. See you tomorrow. — David

P.S. Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey turned their Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on Harvey Weinstein into a guide to investigative journalism for teenagers.

Here’s today’s front page.

The Daily” is about schools in Chicago. “Sway” features Mayor London Breed of San Francisco.

Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti, Ashley Wu and Sanam Yar contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at themorning@nytimes.com.

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