Omicron projected to cause more COVID-19 infections, fewer hospitalizations, analysts say

The emergence of the quickly spreading omicron variant of COVID-19 is likely to fuel billions of infections worldwide in the coming months, though it will cause fewer hospitalizations and deaths than the previously prevalent delta variant, KIRO-TV reported, citing an analysis from the University of Washington.

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In the next two months, the omicron variant is predicted to cause 3 billion new COVID-19 infections, researchers with UW’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predicted, according to KIRO.

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‼️BREAKING: According to our updated #COVID19 model, we project 3 billion infections over the next three months...

Posted by Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) on Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Researchers said, however, that it’s likely the infections will be less severe than those seen in people infected with the delta variant, leading to fewer hospitalizations and deaths overall, KIRO reported. Still, analysts warned that the number of people expected to become infected in the coming weeks could still leave hospitals overwhelmed, according to KIRO.

Dr. Christopher Murray, director of IHME, said last week that omicron appears to be overtaking delta as the dominant strain of COVID-19 within two or three weeks of appearing in a population.

>> See IMHE’s COVID-19 models

“Based on that spread and the fact that omicron has gotten to many countries already, we are expecting that omicron will be the dominant variant in most places in the world by January, and our preliminary assessment of transmission potential suggests that we will have a very large global epidemic wave from omicron unfolding at a much faster pace than the delta wave spread around the world,” he said.

“We will probably reach a peak sometime in January around the omicron wave.”

Under the model released Wednesday, researchers said they expect to see transmission rates peak in mid-January with more than 35 million global infections daily, KIRO reported.

>> Related: Omicron now dominant US coronavirus strain, CDC says

Some experts expressed skepticism about IMHE’s predictions. Natalie Dean, a biostatistician at Emory University, told The New York Times on Wednesday that creating a definitive forecast for the impact of omicron “feels premature.”

Justin Lessler, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told the Times that it seemed too soon to determine whether omicron would cause less severe infections than delta.

>> Related: Coronavirus: 1st known omicron death in US reported in Texas

“I am unclear what is driving their fairly optimistic estimates of reduced hospitalization and death,” he said, according to the newspaper. “While such reductions are certainly possible, I think the evidence is still very uncertain on that point, and the possibility of higher severity exists which would substantially increase the impact of a larger omicron wave.”

Public health officials have said that much remains unknown about omicron, including its transmissibility, whether it’s more resistant to vaccines and whether it causes more severe illness than previous viral strains. Officials have urged people to get vaccinated or get booster shots, if they have been fully vaccinated, in order to protect themselves against severe COVID-19 infections.

>> Related: Coronavirus: Biden lays out plan to curb omicron surge, focuses on vaccinations

As of Tuesday morning, more than 72% of the U.S. population – 241.1 million people – has gotten at least one dose of any of the available COVID-19 vaccines, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Over 61% of Americans, or 204.5 million people, have been fully vaccinated, and more than 30% of those who have been fully vaccinated have gotten booster shots, CDC data shows.

Since the start of the pandemic, officials have reported 51.3 million cases of COVID-19 nationwide, resulting in more than 810,000 deaths, according to a tally from Johns Hopkins University. Globally, 276.6 million cases have been reported, resulting in 5.3 million deaths, according to the university.