U.S. health officials are optimistic, albeit cautiously, the country has turned the corner on the unprecedented wave of infection caused by the omicron Covid variant as new cases plummet 90% from a pandemic record set just five weeks ago.
As the nation emerges from the omicron wave, U.S. and state leaders are trying to mentally move past the crisis that has gripped everyone since the pandemic began two years ago. Public health leaders have begun rolling out plans to deal with the virus as a persistent but manageable risk in the future.
The U.S. is reporting about 84,000 new cases per day on average, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University, down from a pandemic high of more than 800,000 daily cases on Jan. 15. And the decline is widespread across the nation, with average daily cases down by at least 40% in all U.S. regions over the past two weeks, according to a CNBC analysis of Hopkins data.
Hospitalizations have also fallen sharply. There are about 66,000 patients in U.S. hospitals with Covid as of Monday, according to a seven-day average of data from the Department of Health and Human Services, down from the Jan. 20 peak of 159,000 patients.
The Covid death toll, which typically lags a rise in cases by a number of weeks, is elevated but showing signs of easing. Average daily deaths reached the highest level in about a year on Feb. 1 at nearly 2,600 per day, and have since fallen below 2,000.
“While we’re not where we all want to be yet, we’re encouraged by the dramatic declines we’re seeing in cases and hospitalizations nationwide,” Jeff Zients, White House Covid response coordinator, told the public during briefing last week.
The omicron variant caused a surge in cases like no other wave, pushing infections from less than 100,000 a day just after Thanksgiving to a peak of 802,000 by mid-January before falling just as rapidly. “It was really fast, furious, like a flash flood,” said Johns Hopkins epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo.
While the U.S. is moving in the right direction, Nuzzo cautioned that the omicron subvariant BA.2 could slow the recovery. BA.2 is more transmissible than the original omicron strain, though it’s currently circulating at a low level in the U.S.
“I don’t think BA.2 is going to cause the huge spike that we saw in the winter,” Nuzzo said, noting that there’s probably a fair amount of immunity in the population after the omicron wave. “But it’s possible it could drag out the decline, the rate of slowdown,” she said.
Though infections remain an important early warning sign, hospitalizations and deaths are the most important indicator of how the U.S. should respond to Covid moving forward, Nuzzo said. Omicron generally doesn’t make people as sick as the delta variant, so infection numbers alone don’t provide a full picture of how the pandemic is impacting society.
The U.S. now has the ability to focus its response on protecting those who remain vulnerable despite being vaccinated, Nuzzo said, such as people with compromised immune systems.
“We’re in a different state now than we were in 2020,” Nuzzo said. “We have vaccines, we have a virus that on a per case basis tends to be less lethal, even though that’s very much tied to the level of immunity that exists in our population. Now we have much more abilities to target our resources.”
California rolled out a first-in-the-nation plan last week to move past the crisis phase of the pandemic and deal with the virus as an ongoing manageable risk. Gov. Gavin Newsom said California had to learn to live with the virus, using the tools developed over the past two years to prepare as much as possible for an uncertain future.
“We have all come to understand what was not understood at the beginning of this crisis — that there is no end date, that there is not a moment where we declare victory,” Newsom said during a press conference Thursday.
The California plan relies on wastewater surveillance to detect rising viral transmission early. If state health officials pick up a signal, they would use genetic sequencing to determine whether a new variant is circulating. They would then move to determine within 45 days whether the current vaccines, testing and therapies are still effective against the strain. The state would also surge testing and health-care staff to regions impacted by rising infections.
As the omicron wave recedes, people are eager to shake off public health measures. New York and California let their universal mask mandates for indoor public places expire this month, though their school mask requirements remain in place for now. New Jersey is lifting its school mask mandate in March.
“This is not a declaration of victory as much as an acknowledgment that we can responsibly live with this thing,” New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, said earlier this month.
Nuzzo said lifting mask mandates as omicron subsides in states that have high levels of vaccination makes sense. However, she said choosing to wear a mask in crowded indoor spaces is still a good idea.
“We are not saying you don’t need to wear masks. We’re just not making it the job of a person in the Starbucks to have to yell at somebody and possibly call the police because they’re not wearing a mask in the store,” Nuzzo said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may soon update its mask guidance as well. Right now, the CDC recommends that everyone, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks indoors in areas of high viral transmission. Though omicron is fading, nearly every county in the U.S. still has high transmission, according to CDC data.
However, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky signaled last week week that the public health agency will focus more on hospital admissions when issuing guidance on how to deal with the virus in the future.
“We must consider hospital capacity as an additional important barometer,” Walensky told the public during a White House Covid update Wednesday. “We want to give people a break from things like mask-wearing when these metrics are better, and then have the ability to reach for them again should things worsen.”