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The surge of omicron cases in the U.S. may have started to peak

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Could the omicron surge be starting to peak in the United States? Some researchers see early signs in some areas of the country. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now. Rob, good morning.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What's the evidence?

STEIN: Well, you know, Steve, as you know, I've been here many other times during the pandemic with hope that the worst may finally be over, and as - we know how that turned out. So honestly, I'm a little hesitant to even be talking about this. But there are some hopeful hints, at least in some places, you know, like parts of the country that got hit hardest first. Infections look like they might be coming down in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts. The number of people catching the virus every day is falling here in Washington, D.C., too, and nearby in Maryland. Here's Dr. David Rubin, who tracks the pandemic at the PolicyLab in Children's Hospital in Philadelphia. He says the number of people flooding into emergency rooms in the Northeast looks like it's slowing, and the percentage of school staff testing positive in the Philadelphia area has dropped dramatically.

DAVID RUBIN: That to us is a very clear indication that the crisis is beginning to subside, and we are likely moving in the right direction. I think we're starting to move towards better days.

STEIN: In fact, Rubin thinks the omicron wave will soon crest in other parts of the country and then nationally in the next week or two, just like it did in South Africa and the U.K.

INSKEEP: Do other researchers agree with that optimistic assessment?

STEIN: You know, Steve, it depends who you talk to. Some do; some don't. One who does is Ali Mokdad at the University of Washington. He goes even further in some ways. He says because the omicron surge looks like it is peaking and it looks like it tends to be milder, especially for vaccinated people, the country should focus on keeping society open as we get through this. That means prioritizing tests for people who need them most and enabling people who test positive to return to work as quickly as possible.

ALI MOKDAD: I think we should change our approach to omicron and say, let's go back to normal. Skies are not falling. Calm down. This is going to go away, and thus we need to go back to our normal lives and now focus on economy.

STEIN: You know, while still being careful as the surge subsides and making sure we protect the most vulnerable, like the elderly.

INSKEEP: What's the case for the other side, the more pessimistic case?

STEIN: Right, right. You know, most of the experts I've been talking to agree there are encouraging clues, but they say it's really just too soon to know anything for sure. You know, this virus has surprised us so many times. Anything's possible. Here's Jennifer Nuzzo at Johns Hopkins.

JENNIFER NUZZO: We have seen before a turn-down only to be followed by another acceleration. And there's real danger in giving people the sense that they can kind of relax their worries prematurely.

STEIN: And Nuzzo points out that the omicron surge has already hit record-high levels. So even if infections are peaking and will fall quickly, the toll of this terrible surge is likely to have a long tail.

INSKEEP: Let's talk about what you mean by a long tail.

STEIN: Yeah. So, you know, more than 800,000 people are catching the virus on average every day now, and the surge is still accelerating in many parts of the country. The number of people getting so sick they need to be hospitalized is already at record-high levels. And that'll get worse before it gets better in many places, even with infections falling. And more than 1,700 people are dying from COVID-19 every day on average, and that will probably continue to climb, too, even after infections ebb for some weeks. So whatever happens in the next month or so, it is still going to be pretty rough.

INSKEEP: Good reminder that hospitalizations and deaths are what they call lagging indicators. They increase later than other factors, right?

STEIN: That's right. That's right. Usually, it takes a week or two after infections start to peak before hospitalizations start to peak, and then it takes a few days, maybe a week after that, before deaths start to peak. So, you know, these things trail off kind of slowly and then steps down.

INSKEEP: Rob, thanks for the update. Really appreciate it.

STEIN: You bet, Steve.

INSKEEP: The best assessment we have, from NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.

(SOUNDBITE OF EVOCATIV'S "INTERLUDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.