New Virus Cases Begin to Slow in U.S. Cities Where Omicron Hit First

At another gloomy moment in the pandemic in the United States – with nearly 800,000 new cases a day, deaths on the rise, and federal medical teams deploying to overwhelmed hospitals – glimmers of progress have finally started to emerge. In a handful of places that were among the first to see an increase in the Omicron variant last month, reports of new coronavirus infections have started to level off or decline.

Daily case reports have dropped rapidly around Cleveland, Newark and Washington, DC, each suffering record highs in the past month. There were also early signs in Chicago, New York, Puerto Rico and hard-hit Colorado ski resorts that cases were plateauing or starting to decline.

The slowing of the spread in these locations was good news, suggesting that a national peak in the Omicron wave could be approaching. But most of the country continued to see explosive growth in virus cases, with some western and southern states reporting a 400% increase in the past two weeks. Officials also warned that hospitalizations and deaths lagged behind actual infections, meaning that even in places where new cases have started to decline, it would still be weeks before Omicron’s full impact. be known.

“We’re a long way from being out of the woods,” said Dr Bruce Vanderhoff, director of the Ohio Department of Health, who told reporters he was encouraged by early indications of a slowdown in parts of his condition. But he warned: “If we’ve learned one thing about Covid, it’s that it’s extraordinarily unpredictable. And things can change drastically and quickly.

Just seven weeks ago, scientists in South Africa alerted the world to the fast-spreading Omicron variant, and it’s been just a month since the variant started gaining a foothold in the United States. As cases reached record levels in the days that followed, scientists found that Omicron tends to cause less severe illness in many people than earlier forms of the virus, and that vaccines, although less protectors against infection, continue to provide a strong defense against critical attacks. sickness and death.

Yet the speed and scale of Omicron’s surge disrupted American life and taxed a healthcare system that was already strained by a fall hike driven by the Delta variant. Across the country, more than 1,800 deaths are reported every day, an increase of about 50% in the past two weeks. Colleges and some school districts have returned to online education, bus routes have been cut short after drivers tested positive, and health systems have struggled to cope with a slight increase in cases among employees.

In Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers said Thursday that National Guard members would train as licensed practical nurses and then be deployed to understaffed nursing homes. In Omaha, where the Nebraska attorney general sued the county health director for a new mask term, a large hospital said it was activating a crisis plan that would limit appointments and reschedule surgeries due to increase in the number of cases. And at a small hospital in Canton, SD, officials said, four of eight nurses who usually treated patients on the floor had the virus at some point last week.

“What we are preparing for right now is really to do everything we can to avoid a labor shortage,” said Dr Jeremy Cauwels, chief medical officer of Sanford Health, in the Haut- Midwest, where more than 400 hospital system workers were off work with the virus this week.

Christina Ramirez, a biostatistician at the University of California, Los Angeles, said it was too early to say where the United States was in its boom. Omicron has gone through and peaked in South Africa in about a month, but countries like Denmark and Germany are more like a “jagged sawtooth,” she said. “You get a few days where it goes down, up and down.”

“We have been fooled by the virus before,” said Dr Ramirez. “The next few weeks will be very revealing. “

Even though some cities were seeing new cases slow down, reports of infections continued to rise sharply nationwide. About 150,000 people infected with the virus are hospitalized across the country, more than at any time during the pandemic. This data includes patients who have been hospitalized for other reasons and found to have Covid.

At several times throughout the pandemic, outbreaks caused by new variants caused cases to steadily increase for some time before falling back. Scientists suggest that biology and behavior contribute to this pattern. As cases increase, people can become more cautious, and as more people become infected, the virus will have a harder time finding susceptible hosts. Because Omicron spreads so quickly, this cycle could be faster than previous surges.

Experts’ understanding of the trajectory of Omicron’s push in the United States has been complicated by questions about the reporting of new cases. More and more people have turned to home tests to confirm their infections, and many of them are not counted in official data. But the trend lines of the cases, which just a week ago showed rapid growth almost all over the country, remain useful in describing the overall trend.

In Chicago, Public Health Commissioner Dr Allison Arwady said Thursday she was “much less worried than I was three, four or five days ago” about the city’s outlook. With cases reaching record highs in Chicago, a labor dispute between city hall and the teachers’ union canceled classes for a week. With the start of the school year on Thursday, there were signs that reports of new cases and test positivity could level off, even as hospitalizations continued to rise.

“It is still too early to be able to clearly say that this is the top, we are going down,” Dr Arwady said. “But I think we’re definitely seeing signs of flattening across a lot of different metrics.”

New York City has averaged about 38,000 new infections a day over the past week, down slightly in recent days but still close to the highest rate of the pandemic. New York Governor Kathy Hochul said this week that “it looks like we’ve passed that peak,” but transmission has remained high.

At Newark University Hospital, the number of patients with Covid has held steady at around 150 over the past five days. Dr Shereef Elnahal, the hospital’s president and CEO, said he hoped the rapid surge in hospitalizations since the end of December had finally stabilized.

“With all the caveats, God willing, I’m knocking on wood, we’re starting to see a plateau in daily hospitalizations,” Dr Elnahal said.

These trends are more pronounced in some other cities. In San Juan, PR, reports of new cases have fallen 17% in the past two weeks. In the county that includes Cleveland, new case reports have plunged 49% in two weeks. Washington, DC, registers an average of 1,700 new cases per day, up from a peak of more than 2,100 in early January.

“I think it’s a real stabilization, although still with appalling transmission rates,” said Dr Lynn Goldman, dean of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University.

Slowing cases in some places did not ease the immediate crisis in many hospitals across the country. President Biden said Thursday he was sending 120 additional military medics to six states – Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio and Rhode Island – where hospitals had been overrun.

Mr Biden also said he was asking his staff to purchase an additional 500 million home coronavirus tests to distribute to Americans, doubling the government’s previous purchase. It was not yet known when the first of these tests would be available.

Omicron began to increase before Christmas in urban centers in the eastern half of the country, including in many places where the number of daily cases has recently started to decline. But much of the United States, especially the west and rural southern and midwestern regions, only experienced a similar peak around the New Year. In those areas, daily cases continue to rise rapidly.

In Oregon and Utah, new reported cases have increased by more than 450% in the past two weeks. Los Angeles County, California, averages about 40,000 cases a day, up from 25,000 a week ago and 5,500 before Christmas. Arkansas, which averaged less than 1,000 cases a day before Christmas, is now reporting more than 7,000 a day. In Louisiana, cases and hospitalizations have both increased by more than 200% in the past two weeks.

“It’s not forever,” said Governor John Bel Edwards of Louisiana. “At some point we’ll peak in this push like we’ve done before and we’ll start going down the other side, but frankly we’re not there yet.”

Whenever the Omicron wave finally recedes, it is unclear to what extent the country could be protected from future outbreaks, whether small and sporadic or more widespread.

“I think that’s the million dollar question,” said Bertha Hidalgo, an epidemiologist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “I hope we don’t see a worrying new variant soon and that the immunity we are building against Omicron is long lasting.”

Evidence from earlier variants suggests that immunity to natural infections only lasts for so long, Dr Hidalgo added.

Across the country, officials in places with glimmers of hope in their data were taking a cautious approach to interpreting those numbers.

Dr Ngozi Ezike, director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said Wednesday it was “too early to tell” if Omicron’s worst had passed in his condition. Statewide hospitalizations had declined slightly on a recent day, but it was not clear if that would become a trend.

“You really want to see a constant decline,” Dr. Ezike said. “I’ll be the first to announce it when we can say it with enough confidence. I keep my fingers and toes crossed, but just don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.

Michael D. Shear and Tracey Tully contributed report.

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