The COVID-19 pandemic is still far from over but there’s new hope the “emergency phase” could end this year because of the omicron variant’s speedy spread around the globe, a top official of the World Health Organization in Europe said Monday.
“Omicron offers plausible hope for stabilization and normalization,” Dr. Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, said in a statement, describing how, with the proper precautions, the next variant “could no longer require the return to pandemic-era, population-wide lockdowns or similar measures.”
That’s going to take “strong surveillance and monitoring of new variants, high vaccination uptake and third doses, ventilation, affordable equitable access to antivirals, targeted testing, and shielding high-risk groups with high-quality masks and physical distancing,” he said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top medical adviser to President Joe Biden, also offered some hope of getting COVID-19 infections “to below what I call that area of control” in the coming weeks, where “they’re there, but they don’t disrupt society,” similar to other respiratory infections.
But appearing Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” Fauci also said the omicron surge has yet to peak in some parts of the United States. He said there “may be a bit more pain and suffering with hospitalizations in those areas of the country that have not been fully vaccinated or have not gotten boosters.”
That includes in Utah, which currently is tied with Rhode Island for the nation’s second-highest number of cases per 100,000 people behind Wisconsin, according to data collected by The New York Times. The newspaper cited Utah on Monday as a state lagging in vaccinations but reporting record case counts and hospitalizations.
What’s next after omicron?
Omicron, a less severe but incredibly transmissible COVID-19 variant that has overwhelmed hospitalsas it sweeps around the globe because of the sheer number of new infections, is not expected to be the last version of the deadly virus that first surfaced more than two years ago.
“This pandemic, like all other pandemics before it, will end, but it is far too early to relax,” Kluge said. “With the millions of infections occurring in the world in recent and coming weeks, coupled with waning immunity and winter seasonality, it is almost a given that new COVID-19 variants will emerge and return.”
Whether the omicron variant offers protection against future versions of the virus remains to be seen, cautioned Dr. Eddie Stenehjem, an infectious diseases physician with Intermountain Healthcare, the region’s largest health care provider.
“There’s definitely going to be another variant. I mean, that’s what viruses do. Especially if we see worldwide circulation, there will absolutely be another variant. To what extent prior infection with omicron is going to cover the next variant is unclear,” Stenehjem told reporters recently.
Studies pitting omicron against prior variants are ongoing and look promising, the doctor said.
“That could be a very good thing in terms of us moving forward and having less COVID in our lives,” he said, adding the “best-case scenario” at this point would be if the immune response generated from omicron turns out to be protective.
That would mean “our community immunity that we’ve generated from vaccination and infection will be robust enough to prevent these really significant surges that cause hospitalization numbers to go up,” Stenehjem said. “There’s plenty of people that think that will be the case. We’re really going to have to see what happens.”
Han Kim, a professor of public health at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, said omicron is changing COVID-19.
“It is spreading so rapidly and exposing so much of the population,” Kim said, building immunity that could limit the impact on hospitalizations and deaths from future variants to the point COVID-19 may shift from a pandemic to an endemic like the seasonal flu, that remains deadly but is not circulating as widely.
“I think this has the potential to kind of open the door to becoming that endemic disease. Some folks are predicting maybe this summer will be the summer that we wanted last summer. All pandemics eventually end. It’s just a matter of when,” the professor said.
Nearly 22,000 new cases and 33 additional deaths in Utah since Friday
The Utah Department of Health reported 21,970 new coronavirus cases over the weekend — 10,610 on Friday, 6,850 on Saturday and 4,549 on Sunday. While the numbers appear to be dropping, the state continues to advise most Utahns showing symptoms to assume they have the virus and isolate for five days rather than get tested.
“I think we are still surging,” Kim said, suggesting cases may peak later this week or next in Utah.
As of Monday, the rolling seven-day average for positive tests is 9,677 per day, and the rolling seven-day average for percent positivity of tests is 44.2% when all results are included and 30.1% when multiple tests by an individual are excluded.
The state health department also reported 33 new deaths since last week, bringing Utah’s death toll from COVID-19 to 4,063 since the start of the pandemic. Hospitalizations remain at near-record highs, with 738 people currently in Utah hospitals with the virus.
Kim said even after omicron peaks in Utah, the state could still be in for a slower recovery than other places with higher vaccination rates against COVID-19. Less than 60% of all Utahns are fully vaccinated, meaning they’ve received the initial series of shots, and 40% of them have also gotten a booster dose.
A new multi-state Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study that included data from Intermountain Healthcare in Utah showed that a booster shot has a “significant impact” against omicron, increasing the effectiveness of vaccination in keeping someone out of the hospital from 50% to 90%.
Intermountain Healthcare tweeted that as of Sunday, 68% of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 were not vaccinated, 24% had gotten the initial shots and just 8% were also boosted. The numbers are more stark in the ICU: 82% of COVID-19 patients there are unvaccinated; 14% had the initial shots and just 4% were also boosted.
Kim said it’s “incredibly dramatic” how differently the virus impacts the vaccinated versus the unvaccinated.
“For those who are boosted, and even those who don’t have the booster but still have the full vaccine series, we can define this as a fairly mild variant. For most folks, the risk of severe disease is low,” he said. “But for those who are unvaccinated, this is just as deadly as the original variant.”