New projections from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation predict that Alaska is on course to experience it’s largest wave of COVID-19 infections so far as the omicron variant moves through the state. However, deaths and hospitalizations are expected to remain relatively low in comparison to other waves.
By mid-February, the organization projects that the state will have an estimated 2,500 daily infections, higher than the peak seen during the delta wave this fall, which reached more than 2,300 cases at its peak in September.
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At the same time, deaths are projected to stay relatively low, peaking in early January at levels similar to those seen in late July, before the delta surge took off. The IHME estimates that roughly 971 Alaskans will die from COVID over the course of the pandemic by April 1, 2022.
Hospital resource use is also likely to increase through the end of April, but is expected to stay at levels roughly seen last spring, and well below the peaks of last winter and this fall. By early March, it’s expected that there will be roughly 19 beds, and 4 ICU beds, needed by COVID patients daily.
Masks, along with vaccination, are two tools which could significantly alter the course of the omicron wave. Currently, only about 40% of Alaskans are regularly masking up when in public. If that increased to 80%, infections and deaths could be sizably reduced.
The new modeling from the IHME took more than a month to complete, and takes into account a number of factors, including waning vaccine efficacy, the omicron variant, and overall immunity. Over the next two months, the IHME expects that 60% of people in the U.S. will catch omicron, with more than 90% likely experiencing an asymptomatic infection.
On a global scale, Dr. Christopher Murray, IHME director, said he expects more than 3 billion cases of omicron infections within the next three months.
But based on data from South Africa, the UK, Denmark, and Norway, the models expect that hospitalizations resulting from a COVID infection will be between 90-96% lower than rates seen with the delta variant.
There’s reason to believe that the infection fatality rate will also be between 97-99% lower with omicron than with delta, but the greater number of people infected will lead to moderate numbers of hospitalizations. This could still mean a national peak daily death count of more than 2,000 by February, according to the IHME.
On policy, the IHME said it does not believe elementary or secondary school closures would be helpful due to rapid spread, and reduced hospitalization and death rates. At the same time, aggressive lockdowns to control transmissions may reduce pressure on some hospital systems, but will come at social and economic cost.
Due to the variant’s high transmissibility, it could mean that contact tracing could become ineffective, and a potential waste of resources. The report states that instead, projected stress on hospitals and hospitalization rates should be used as a metric to drive policy at the local level, instead of raw infection numbers.