WE ARE NOT THERE YET— As we enter the third year of the pandemic, my mind keeps flashing back to a trailer I saw last year for a widely panned Michael Bay movie, which portrays an unlikely dystopian pandemic future, but captures the feeling of helplessness and despair that so many — even those of us lucky enough to have access to vaccines and the privilege to social distance — feel right now with the country on the brink of an Omicron surge.
Last year, when I put together a 2021 pandemic guide, it seemed like this year would bring back a sense of normalcy. And in many ways it did: Kids headed back to classrooms, sports seasons resumed relatively routine schedules, families celebrated the holidays together, people got on planes and many workers went back to the office full time.
Yet more people have died this year than last year as the virus tore its way through largely unvaccinated pockets of the country killing older Americans at alarming rates. One out of every hundred Americans 65 and older have died from Covid.
These days, with hospitals so full they are refusing patients, it’s hard to see how this pandemic will ever end, so I reached out to several Nightly go-to experts to help me figure out what is actually ahead. Here are five predictions for 2022:
The U.S. will hit one million deaths in the spring.
Earlier this week the country hit 800,000 Covid deaths and is still recording about 1,300 deaths a day. Even if the Omicron death rate is lower, the overall infection rate will likely be higher, leading to another surge in deaths, said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota.
“Omicron is starting to rival our most transmissible infectious agent of all: measles,” said Peter Hotez, a vaccine expert at the Baylor College of Medicine, who predicts the country will see a million deaths by the end of March.
Even folks who have gotten their booster dose are getting breakthrough infections, though they are largely spared from severe outcomes. But nearly 75 percent of the population has yet to receive a booster dose, and 40 percent of the U.S. population has yet to receive a single vaccine dose — leaving a vast number of Americans still deeply vulnerable to the worst of the crisis.
We will run out of room on our vaccination cards.
The mRNA vaccines are proving to be not as long lasting as we had hoped, said Hotez, who is working on a low-cost recombinant protein vaccine.
Even three doses may not be enough. “We haven’t hit the ceiling yet of how high we can get an immune response,” said Kirsten Lyke, a vaccine researcher at the University of Maryland School of Medicine who has been studying Covid shots.
That means we will probably be getting another shot. It’s unclear whether future shots will be the same as the previous ones or reconfigured to better tackle new variants, and whether they will become annual rituals. Researchers are now working on a coronavirus shot that will protect against a broad range of coronaviruses as well as variants.
We will be talking about an Omega variant.
“We will go through the whole Greek alphabet,” said Syra Madad, an infectious disease epidemiologist and senior director of the system-wide special pathogens program at NYC Health + Hospitals. We may not hit the Greek alphabet’s last letter in 2022, but it won’t be a distant possibility.
As long as there are large unvaccinated pockets of the world, new variants will emerge, Hotez said. Less than 50 percent of the world’s population is vaccinated.
“Mother Nature has told us what she has in store for us,” Hotez said, who argues the U.S. has a responsibility to provide doses and combat global anti-vaccine messages. “If we fail to vaccinate the Southern hemisphere, she will get us.”