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The omicron surge has yet to peak in many areas of the U.S.


This huge omicron surge appears to be peaking in the U.S. That's according to a growing number of infectious disease experts who are tracking the pandemic.

NPR health correspondent Rob Stein joins us now with the latest. Hey, Rob.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Hey, there.

CHANG: All right. So the surge is peaking, which does sound like really good news, but what is the evidence for that?

STEIN: You know, Ailsa, this surge is not only huge - it's moving unbelievably fast.

CHANG: Yeah.

STEIN: So everyone watching omicron tear across the country has been kind of holding their breath day by day, waiting for that moment when it would hopefully peak fast, too. And it looks like that moment may finally have arrived. I talked about this with Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown School of Public Health.

ASHISH JHA: I do think that we have peaked and have started the downturn. That's obviously good news and something that we've all been looking for and waiting for. And I think in the last couple of days, that's become clear. The surge has peaked, and it is now starting its downturn.

STEIN: You know, the total number of people catching omicron every day nationally has started to fall for the first time since the surge began. The number of people flooding into emergency rooms looks like it's slowing in many places, too. Same goes for those so sick they need to be hospitalized. So the hope is that omicron is following the same breathtaking trajectory it took in South Africa and the U.K. and starting to recede as fast as it soared.

CHANG: Wait, but I heard you just say infections are falling nationally. Does that mean...

STEIN: Yeah.

CHANG: ...They're only falling in some places?

STEIN: Yeah, yeah. And that's key. It's peaking first in the places where it hit first - you know, densely populated places like Northeast, like, you know, New York and New Jersey, but also other places too, like Florida, maybe even Texas and California. And that's what's driving the national downturn.

But there are big parts of the country where the surge is still shooting straight up. I talked about this with Dr. David Rubin, who tracks the pandemic at the PolicyLab in Philadelphia.

DAVID RUBIN: We're still mindful that there are areas that are still struggling, particularly areas in the north, from Maine all the way over to Washington state. But also in the heartland and in the Mountain West now, we're seeing stubbornly high transmission. These are also ski destinations, and a lot of travel to those regions over the winter.

STEIN: So, you know, it'll take more time for those places to crest, too. But Rubin thinks they're not far behind.

CHANG: OK, then what? What happens after the peak?

STEIN: Well, you know, there's always a chance it could surge again. This virus has surprised us so many times before. There's no way to be completely sure about anything. But even if this is really the peak, don't forget - this peak is enormous. We're talking, you know, the Mt. Everest of pandemic peaks.

CHANG: (Laughter).

STEIN: You know, here's how Lauren Ancel Meyers at the University of Texas in Austin puts it.

LAUREN ANCEL MEYERS: It's a good sign that things are declining, but it doesn't mean that we're out of the woods. It means that we still have very high levels of transmission in many parts of the country. And so that means that on the way back down from the peak, at least as many people are going to get infected and end up in the hospital and die as happened on the way up.

STEIN: So hospitals are still going to be slammed in many places for weeks to come. Hundreds are still going to be dying every day.

But by the end of February, the projections are that things could finally be getting back to where they were kind of like in the beginning of last summer, when it felt like life was finally starting to get back to something close to normal. So Easter and spring break could feel a lot safer, you know, assuming, of course, yet another nasty variant doesn't blindside us yet again.

CHANG: Yes, assuming that.


CHANG: And real quick, I know the White House held another briefing today. What are they saying about where things stand at the moment?

STEIN: Yeah. So CDC Director Rochelle Walensky is calling the national drop in infections an optimistic trend, but is cautioning that the virus is still raging in many places. So she's urging people to keep being careful and get vaccinated and boosted. And in fact, the CDC today released three new studies showing that yes, omicron can sneak around the vaccines better than delta, but getting boosted does mean you're much less likely to get so sick you'll end up in the emergency room or need to be hospitalized.

CHANG: All right, get boosted. That is NPR health correspondent Rob Stein. Thank you, Rob.

STEIN: Sure thing, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.