What’s next?

By David Leonhardt

The latest Omicron developments continue to be encouraging. New Covid-19 cases are plummeting in a growing list of places. The percentage of cases causing severe illness is much lower than it was with the Delta variant. And vaccines — particularly after a booster shot — remain extremely effective in preventing hospitalization and death.

In today’s newsletter, I’ll walk through these developments, with help from charts created by my colleague Ashley Wu. I also think it’s time to begin considering what life after the Omicron wave might look like.

Since early last week, new cases in Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey and New York have fallen by more than 30 percent. They’re down by more than 10 percent in Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. In California, cases may have peaked.

“Let’s be clear on this — we are winning,” Mayor Eric Adams of New York said yesterday. Kathy Hochul, the governor of New York State, said during a budget speech, “We hope to close the books on this winter surge soon.”

If anything, the official Covid numbers probably understate the actual declines, because test results are often a few days behind reality.

The following data comes from Kinsa, a San Francisco company that tracks 2.5 million internet-connected thermometers across the country. It uses that data to estimate the percentage of Americans who have a fever every day. The declines over the past week have been sharp, which is a sign of Omicron’s retreat:

Credit…Chart shows 7-day average. | Source: Kinsa

Many hospitals are still coping with a crushing number of patients, because Covid hospitalization trends often trail case trends by about a week. But even the hospital data shows glimmers of good news: The number of people hospitalized with Covid has begun declining over the past few days in places where Omicron arrived first:

Credit…Charts show 7-day average. | Source: New York Times database

The U.S. seems to be following a similar Omicron pattern as South Africa, Britain and several other countries: A rapid, enormous surge for about a month, followed by a rapid decline — first in cases, then hospitalizations and finally deaths.

(Look up official numbers for your state and county.)

Some of the clearest research on Covid’s risks comes from a team of British researchers led by Dr. Julia Hippisley-Cox of the University of Oxford. The team has created an online calculator that allows you to enter a person’s age, vaccination status, height and weight, as well as major Covid risk factors. (It’s based on an analysis of British patients, but its conclusions are relevant elsewhere.)

A typical 65-year-old American woman — to take one example — is five foot three inches tall and weighs 166 pounds. If she had been vaccinated and did not have a major Covid risk factor, like an organ transplant, her chance of dying after contracting Covid would be 1 in 872, according to the calculator. For a typical 65-year-old man, the risk would be 1 in 434.

Among 75-year-olds, the risk would be 1 in 264 for a typical woman and 1 in 133 for a typical man.

Those are meaningful risks. But they are not larger than many other risks older people face. In the 2019-20 flu season, about 1 out of every 138 Americans 65 and older who had flu symptoms died from them, according to the C.D.C.

And Omicron probably presents less risk than the British calculator suggests, because it uses data through the first half of 2021, when the dominant version of Covid was more severe than Omicron appears to be. One sign of Omicron’s relative mildness: Among vaccinated people in Utah (a state that publishes detailed data), the percentage of cases leading to hospitalization has been only about half as high in recent weeks as it was last summer.

For now, the available evidence suggests that Omicron is less threatening to a vaccinated person than a normal flu. Obviously, the Omicron wave has still been damaging, because the variant is so contagious that it has infected tens of millions of Americans in a matter of weeks. Small individual risks have added up to large societal damage.

The final major piece of encouraging news involves booster shots: They are highly effective at preventing severe illness from Omicron. The protection is “remarkably high,” as Dr. Eric Topol of Scripps Research wrote.

Switzerland has begun reporting Covid deaths among three different groups of people: the unvaccinated; the vaccinated who have not received a booster shot; and the vaccinated who have been boosted (typically with a third shot). The first two shots still provide a lot of protection, but the booster makes a meaningful difference, as Edouard Mathieu and Max Roser of Our World in Data have noted:

Credit…Source: Our World in Data

The Covid situation in the U.S. remains fairly grim, with overwhelmed hospitals and nearly 2,000 deaths a day. It’s likely to remain grim into early February. Caseloads are still high in many communities, and death trends typically lag case trends by three weeks.

But the full picture is less grim than the current moment.

Omicron appears to be in retreat, even if the official national data doesn’t yet reflect that reality. Omicron also appears to be mild in a vast majority of cases, especially for the vaccinated. This combination means that the U.S. may be only a few weeks away from the most encouraging Covid situation since early last summer, before the Delta variant emerged.

If that happens — and there is no guarantee it will, as Katherine Wu of The Atlantic explains — it will be time to ask how society can move back toward normalcy and reduce the harsh toll that pandemic isolation has inflicted, particularly on children and disproportionately on low-income children.

When should schools resume all activities? When should offices reopen? When should masks come off? When should asymptomatic people stop interrupting their lives because of a Covid exposure? Above all, when does Covid prevention do more harm — to physical and mental health — than good?

These are tricky questions, and they could often sound inappropriate during the Omicron surge. Now, though, the surge is receding.

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