Will Omicron Ultimately End the Pandemic?
This moment in the pandemic feels familiar. After a record-breaking amount of cases during December 2021 and January 2022 due to the introduction and rapid spread of the omicron SARS-CoV-2 variant, cases have dramatically decreased in many areas of the country. Hospitalizations and deaths in many areas still remain high (1,972 deaths were reported on February 28, according to the CDC), but are also expected to come down over the next few weeks. While numbers are still in “high incidence” ranges in many counties (meaning 100 or more cases per 100,000 population), numbers in most locations across the country are trending similarly to what we saw in October and November 2021, before omicron swept through.
Omicron’s rise was explosive, causing the largest surge of U.S. cases in the pandemic to date. After being identified in the U.S. starting in late November 2021, sequencing data suggested it had become the dominant variant by mid-December, replacing the prior delta variant that had been circulating since summer. Because omicron is better than prior variants at subverting immunity, either from prior infections or vaccinations, a number of people who thought they would be protected from the virus still ended up developing COVID-19. Official numbers probably under-estimate the number of individuals actually infected, as tests were once again scarce and considerable amounts of testing happened by rapid tests rather than clinics; how many of these positive rapid tests went unreported is not known.
Because of the massive impact of the omicron surge, a number of people are suggesting that we’re at the end of the pandemic, and that omicron has heralded the start of the “endemic portion” of the outbreak. Some are even suggesting this should be celebrated and that President Biden should make a declaration that the pandemic is over. Many areas that reinstated mask mandates are lifting them now and reducing other restrictions.
Is this really the case though? Are we even close to done with the pandemic? Below, I spoke with other experts to find out.
Omicron might not be completely over.
First, the thought that the omicron surge may be over is a bit premature, notes Eleanor J. Murray, ScD, assistant professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health. A sub-variant of omicron, dubbed BA.2, has been identified in more than 67 countries to date and has become dominant in several countries including Denmark. A study from that country (not yet peer-reviewed) shows BA.2 spreads even more easily than the original omicron variant. BA.2 has been identified in the U.S. and is being tracked by the CDC. “So there’s a potential for a second sub-variant wave,” says Dr. Murray, who suggests we maintain caution until we know more about the possible spread of BA.2. As of early March 2022, BA.2 is less than 10% of all new cases in the U.S.
Beyond that, “based on what we’ve seen in the past two years, it seems reasonable to suspect that if COVID is behaving in any way that’s predictable, this wave should come down through March, we should maybe have a pretty decent April and May, and then into June or July, we’ll see another wave ticking up,” says Dr. Murray, with another possible fall wave and a large winter wave after that. This may be our future for the years to come: a series of surges that ideally become smaller and more predictable over time. “One future we could maybe look forward to is one where people still sometimes get infected, but people don’t really get particularly sick,” says Dr. Murray. “But to say that this is the future that’s going to happen is basically putting your hope in other SARS-CoV-2 viruses, which is not doing things according to our plans;” that is, we’re crossing our fingers that variants don’t appear which may be more severe and/or immune-evasive than we’ve already seen. That clearly is a big “if.”
Many people remain at high risk of serious infection from COVID-19.
Children under the age of 5 still have no vaccine options when it comes to protection from COVID-19. While that may change soon via emergency use authorization for the Pfizer mRNA vaccine for children ages 6 months to 4 years old, it will be more than a month before children in this age range can be fully vaccinated, and that’s assuming the vaccines are immediately available and accessible to all.