The Omicron wave is now receding in states where the extremely contagious variant arrived later, and some governors are saying it’s time for pandemic-fatigued Americans to try to restore a sense of normalcy and learn to live with the virus.
The United States remains in a precarious position, as hospitals are overstretched and daily deaths are above 2,500 and rising. Case counts are now declining in some interior states, including Arizona, Utah, Colorado, North Dakota, Louisiana and Mississippi, where Omicron swept through more recently, and while new cases are falling nationally, too, they remain far higher than in any other period of the pandemic. And the spread of an Omicron subvariant that appears to be even more contagious has some experts warning that it could take longer than expected for the winter wave to wane.
The daily average of U.S. cases remains about 519,000 a day — more than double the worst statistics from last winter. Hospitalizations, which lag cases, seem to have peaked nationally, though they remain higher than last winter’s peak. Deaths, which lag more, are also at record levels in some states.
A few state leaders said Sunday that while more variants and, inevitably, another surge remain a threat, Omicron has brought the country closer to the endemic stage of the virus.
“We’re not going to manage this to zero,” Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey, a Democrat, said to Chuck Todd on NBC News’ “Meet the Press” on Sunday. “We have to learn how to live with this.”
Public health experts say the next phase of the virus in the United States will depend on what variants emerge and whether a sluggish vaccination campaign picks up speed. Herd immunity to the coronavirus, experts say, is unlikely to be achieved.
The spread of an Omicron subvariant is yet another reminder of the unpredictable path the pandemic could take next.
Scientists warn that the new member the Omicron viral family, known BA.2, could drag out the Omicron surge in much of the world. So far, BA.2 doesn’t appear to cause more severe disease, and vaccines are just as effective against it as they are against other forms of Omicron. But BA.2 does show signs of spreading more readily.
“This may mean higher peak infections in places that have yet to peak, and a slowdown in the downward trends in places that have already experienced peak Omicron,” Thomas Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, told The Times’s Carl Zimmer.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the chief Covid adviser to President Biden, recently offered words of cautious optimism, saying he believed outbreaks could become much more manageable in the coming months — to a point where “they’re there, but they don’t disrupt society.”
As Omicron declines, Gov. Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, a Republican, said the United States should move toward treating the virus as if it’s endemic, but remain vigilant. He acknowledged that more variants are inevitable and called on the federal government to help states ramp up testing capacity and access to treatments.
“That’s where the federal government needs to step up,” he said on “Meet the Press.” “Let’s take advantage of this going down to be prepared for what’s around the corner.”
Roni Caryn Rabin, Carl Zimmer and Maggie Astor contributed to this report.