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UT modeling consortium predicts COVID-19 omicron cases will peak this month

The consortium released updated projections based on recent studies about the characteristics of the omicron variant.

AUSTIN, Texas — The COVID-19 omicron variant is projected to peak in the U.S. this month under two different scenarios, according to new projections from the University of Texas at Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium

KVUE spoke with a consortium researcher who said the peak would be reached by the end of the month. 

Under the latest projections, UT researchers predict the peak of COVID-19 cases, hospital admissions and deaths will reach levels that are more than three times higher than the peak in January 2021.

Last month, the group of researchers released 18 projections regarding the new omicron variant. However, at that time, the variant's characteristics were still unclear, including transmissibility, its ability to evade vaccine and infections-acquired immunity and its severity compared to the delta variant. 

RELATED: UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium releases omicron scenario projections

The latest projections provide and updated outlook now that it has been found that the omicron variant is more transmissible, more immune evasive and less severe than the delta variant. 

Here are two scenarios described in the updated projections. 

Pessimistic scenario: Omicron leads to largest healthcare surge to date

In the pessimistic scenario where the omicron variant is as transmissible as the delta variant and "significantly more evasive" of infection-acquired and vaccine-acquired immunity than delta, the consortium projects the largest health care surge to date, unless measures are taken to slow the spread. 

UT researchers predict that under this scenario, COVID-19 cases would peak on Jan. 9, 2022. Cases, hospital admissions and deaths would reach levels that are 3.3 times the January 2021 peak, per the report. 

Optimistic scenario: Omicron causes mild surge in cases

In an optimistic scenario in which the omicron variant is 55% more transmissible than delta, 33% less severe, and is just slightly more evasive that delta, the consortium predicts a "milder surge" that peaks on Jan. 13. 

In this case, infections, hospital admissions and deaths reach levels that are 3.2 times the January 2021 peak. 

Read the full report from the modeling consortium here.

Annass Bouchnita, a postdoctoral researcher with the consortium, said on Jan. 11 that even in the pessimistic scenario, the wave of deaths would only be "slightly higher" than the one seen just a year ago. 

Bouchnita also said the cases and hospitalizations are expected to peak by the end of the month in Austin, around Jan. 25. He cautioned that the estimate is still just that, an estimate, and said that there is still some uncertainty regarding people following COVID-19 guidelines and testing numbers. 

Bouchnita also said the rise in cases and hospitalizations will likely be followed by a rise in deaths. 

"So this is the evolution of people who get infected with COVID. So after they get infected, they develop symptoms and some of them get hospitalized, and unfortunately, a few of them are going to die," he said. "There is always a lag between the peak infections, the peak in cases, the peak in hospitalizations and deaths."

However, he noted that the number of hospitalizations and deaths is projected to be lower with the omicron variant and attributed that to an increase in vaccinations and subsequent immunity developed from January 2021 to now.

As for when infection rates would fall, Bouchnita speculates the nation should see "manageable numbers" at the beginning of March as he expects cases to rise and drop quickly, comparing omicron-related cases in South Africa to a tsunami. 

"I think on the national level, we should have manageable numbers of cases until stabilization at the beginning of March," he said. "And so if my speculation is correct and if we compare the data that we are having from between us and the U.S., then it seems that maybe by the end of March, we would have manageable levels of hospitalizations and deaths and cases."


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