Well-Being Prevention & Cures

What forecasters are saying about when omicron could peak

Story at a glance

  • The omicron variant has been surging in the U.S. over the past few weeks.
  • By the end of January, the number of cases is likely to surpass any previous monthly total.
  • Several research groups are modeling the wave and say it could peak between mid to late January.

We’re going to see record numbers this month in the U.S. 

An infectious disease modelling group led by Jeffrey Shaman at Columbia University projects that infections could peak in mid-January. But making a prediction has been made more difficult since we’re just coming out of the holiday period. “Projecting the Covid-19 burden is also more difficult now because of the December holidays,” writes Shaman in an opinion piece for the New York Times. “Reporting of cases is often delayed during the two weeks beginning shortly before Christmas until shortly after New Year’s Day.” 

Shaman and his team found that we are likely to see more cases of the coronavirus this month than in any previous month in the pandemic. It’s also likely that a smaller proportion of those cases will lead to hospitalization and deaths, but the sheer volume of cases could mean that hospital systems are overwhelmed. Experts are still debating if omicron leads to less severe disease, but we are still seeing a significant level of hospitalizations and deaths to be concerned about. 

The team found that the surge of cases could occur largely in the first three weeks of January. The models they used produce a range of possibilities, but the entire range tracks above the caseloads of previous months including one year ago when the last winter surge was ramping up. 

Cases in some places may be peaking 

Shaman says that his group thinks that omicron will peak in New York City the first week of January, and later in other places. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation also projects that the number of infections in the country will peak by the end of January, even with a severe surge of omicron nationwide. 

In Florida, some researchers based at the University of Florida (UF) say that the state may already be peaking and should see cases declining within the next 10 days, according to WFTV ABC. “I think there’s quite a bit of room for optimism at this point,” Ira Longini, who is one of the researchers in the Department of Biostatistics at UF, says to ABC. “But, it’s going to be a very bad two or three weeks ahead of us.” Longini and collaborators project that cases will start dropping dramatically and the omicron surge in Florida will be over by the end of the month. 


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Models are often wrong, but useful 

The models developed by researchers are tools to help us visualize potential futures. They also are only as reliable as the data that are fed into them. Case counts will catch up from the lag during the holiday period, but many people may have chosen not to get tested because of the long waits at testing sites. People who test with rapid antigen tests may not follow up with PCR tests and so may not get counted if they had an infection. 

For many reasons, models could be inaccurate but it is reassuring to know that many separate research groups are coming to the same conclusion that the omicron surge could be over and done with soon. Although, it won’t be without problems. “The long-term implications of Omicron remain unknown, but in the near- term, everyone should expect an intense month of disruption,” writes Shaman. “Still, the familiar advice remains the best: get vaccinated, get booster shots and prepare for a bumpy January.” 


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