Health Care

Doctors say NYC’s omicron wave could end in a matter of weeks

Modeling projections off of London and South Africa, local health experts are hopeful that the variant will peak by mid-January.

The line at a pop-up testing site in New York City.

The line at a pop-up testing site in New York City. Shawn Goldberg/Shutterstock

While New York’s COVID-19 numbers continue to rise to alarming levels, with new hospital admissions exceeding those recorded during last year’s post-holiday surge, the omicron wave could end here in a matter of weeks, scientists predict. 

Modeling predictions off of the variant’s rise and fall in South Africa and the UK, experts estimate a mid-January peak that could signal a transition from pandemic to endemic. What’s more is New York City’s high rate of vaccination, coupled with population density, could result in herd immunity much faster than in rural areas, where both immunization and spread rates are lower. 

“The number of inpatients coming in with COVID has seemed to plateau, we’re not seeing a downturn yet, but we’re not seeing a continued upward rise either,” Dr. Mangala Narasimhan, director of Northwell Health Critical Care Services, told City & State. “I’m very optimistic that this will not be a long wave considering what we saw in South Africa and Australia.”

The relatively positive predictions from Narasimhan and other epidemiologists are in sharp contrast to rhetoric from elected officials in recent days, who have expressed grave concern about the sharply rising positivity rate but stopped short of implementing restrictive measures or mass closures to curb the spread. 

“We're not in a good place. I'm going to be really honest with you,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said Monday while announcing hospitalizations of COVID-positive people climbed to 9,561, compared to 7,953 on the same day last year. 

At the same time, hospitalization data could be skewed because it includes people who are COVID-positive but are in the hospital for another reason. On Monday, Hochul called for a change in reporting requirements to prevent confusion. 

About 40% of COVID-positive patients at Northwell are being treated for something other than COVID, but testing positive while at the hospital, Northwell spokesperson Joe Kemp told City & State.

Cases are also less severe than with previous waves due to high rates of vaccination in New York, compared to other parts of the country.  

“Since omicron became the dominant variant, we have seen a significant decrease in the length of (hospital) stays,” Kemp said.

About 10% of COVID patients at Northwell’s 20-some hospitals are in intensive care units, compared to 20-25% during previous surges before vaccines were made widely available, Narasimhan said. 

“The number of intubated, sick people is much lower than in previous waves,” she said. “It’s a couple of days of oxygen therapy and some steroids and they’re getting much better, which is very different from previous waves.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, in recent days has gone as far to say that omicron could change the entire course of the pandemic and usher in a new era in which the virus is here to stay, but no longer overwhelms hospitals.

“My hope is that we get a sharp peak with omicron, and it goes down to a very, very low level, and it just sort of stays there, and we don’t have any more really problematic variants,” Fauci told The Washington Post last week. 

In countries that met omicron weeks before the U.S., cases have begun to taper off.

Officials in South Africa, where the variant was first discovered in November, say the omicron surge has subsided to the point where the government was able to lift some restrictions last week. However, the country’s population is relatively young and had built up some prior immunity during earlier surges. 

The 28-day fatality rate in the country has fallen to 0.2% from 8% six weeks earlier, according to a Sunday op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

And in London, the city is seeing some relief from omicron, while cases are climbing elsewhere in the UK. 

“Very clear that the (National Health Service) in the rest of the country outside London is now coming under the significant pressure that London has been encountering,” NHS CEO Chris Hopson tweeted Monday. “Suggestions that the lag between the two is about 10 days.”

The variant is estimated to be 100% more transmissible than the ancestral COVID-19 strain and 36.5% more transmissible than Delta, according to data from researchers at Columbia University. Because of the high rate of spread, especially in population-dense areas, omicron runs its course rapidly.

“It will fly through New York very quickly, and hopefully that will cause it to peak and come down quicker as well,” Narasimhan said. “The density will help us get through this faster, but it also affects a lot more people than it would in a rural place. So there are pluses and minuses to that.”

The majority of patients being treated for COVID in hospitals are unvaccinated, health care workers have said, including a concerning number of children.

“I’m the chief of the ICU, and I can tell you right now we have the most number of kids that we’ve ever seen in this entire pandemic admitted to the ICU and the hospital, frankly,” Dr. James Schneider, the chief of the pediatric critical care unit at the Cohen Children’s Medical Center told The City in an article published Monday.

Despite the surge in cases among kids, officials have urged calm and said school closures are not currently on the table. 

“Your children are safer in school than any other place based on the facts,” Mayor Eric Adams said in a CNN appearance Tuesday morning. “We see … how quickly this strand is exposing us, but let’s be clear, strand after strand we can’t continue stopping our children from developing socially and academically.”