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Where the Omicron wave has already peaked, and where infection rates may start dropping soon

January 14, 2022, 4:07 PM UTC

The Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus spreads, incubates, and becomes symptomatic at high speed. That all makes for the dramatic rises in case numbers that we’ve become accustomed to seeing over the past month and a half, since the strain’s initial identification in South Africa.

Easy come, easy go? While it would be unwise to extrapolate too much from what’s happening now—the pandemic is full of surprises—it does seem that those steep, Omicron-fueled infection waves have already peaked, in at least a couple of places.

South Africa

South Africa’s Gauteng province, which incorporates the country’s economic center around Johannesburg, was first in and first out.

Within a week of Omicron’s identification in late November, the province became the first in South Africa to enter a fourth wave of COVID infections. A mere three weeks later, health authorities said Gauteng’s wave had peaked; South Africa’s overall peak followed a week and a half after that, at the end of December.

On Friday, Health Minister Joe Phaahla announced the province had “officially exited the fourth wave.” The rest of the country will likely exit the fourth wave around the end of next week, Adrian Puren, the acting director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said on Tuesday.

The U.K.

While South Africa’s Omicron wave arose from very low infection levels—several hundred new cases a day—the U.K. hasn’t seen a daily tally of under 10,000 since June. That’s largely down to a relative paucity of COVID restrictions.

The British Omicron wave really took off in mid-December, lurching from 58,000 daily infections to 77,000, then 87,000, within days. By the turn of the year, it was above the 200,000 mark.

On Thursday, official data suggested the number of confirmed cases over the preceding seven days was down 13% week on week. Does that denote a peak? Maybe. There are several factors that might be confounding the statistics, most important, people struggling to access tests amid high demand.

However, COVID hospitalizations in England have definitely started falling. “Unless things change unexpectedly, we are close to the national peak of COVID patients in hospital,” Matthew Taylor, the CEO of the National Health Service (NHS) Confederation, said Wednesday. “This is a significant moment.”

The U.S.

The U.S. certainly isn’t peaking yet. However, there is promising news starting to trickle in from places where Omicron first took hold, and where case numbers now appear to have started plateauing or even dropping—though again, a testing crunch could be skewing the official figures.

In New York, New Jersey, and Maryland, numbers have been dropping throughout this week; in Illinois, the same seems to have been happening over the past couple days. Boston may have peaked right at the start of the year, judging from wastewater sampling. Cases in Ohio appear to have plateaued in recent days.

Elsewhere

Europe overall also doesn’t seem close to peaking, and the World Health Organization warned a few days ago that half the European population will be infected within the next six to eight weeks—though that would of course include infections on the downward slope.

France’s Pasteur Institute said Wednesday that the country’s peak would likely come within the next few days. In Italy, numbers have fallen slightly in the past couple of days, but experts are predicting the peak will come sometime in the next five to 10 days. Switzerland is anticipating a peak around the end of January.

Colombia is also expecting numbers to drop from the end of January. In Australia, Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said Thursday that cases in the state of New South Wales—hit relatively early by Omicron—may have already peaked, and that the country as a whole could be over the worst in early February.

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