Norfolk County

Model: twentyfold drop in Mass. COVID-19 hospitalizations by spring

RANDOLPH, Mass. — And suddenly, it seems, almost nobody needs a COVID-19 test -- at least not in Randolph.

In recent weeks, residents from more than 70 communities waited hours to get swabbed behind the community center -- with the traffic spilling from the parking lot to a main road and even into some neighborhoods. At its peak in mid-January, the site processed around 1,500 PCR tests a day.

But by Monday, wait times had been reduced to minutes -- with just a trickle of vehicles coming in at a time.

What’s likely happening, one coronavirus model suggests, is that the bottom is beginning to fall out of the Omicron wave.

“The prognosis in the short term is pretty good that the numbers of cases and hospitalizations and deaths will plummet,” said Katriona Shea, PhD, a professor of ecology at The Pennsylvania State University and one of the researchers involved with the Covid-19 Scenario Modeling Hub -- which has been tracking the pandemic using composite statistics derived from around a dozen models.

In Massachusetts, the model predicts a drastic drop in hospitalizations -- from about 2,800 now to less than 150 in late March.

“It’s possible to get another highly transmissible, more severe variant popping up,” Shea said. “We just don’t know. It’s really really impossible to predict what could happen.

But if nothing else emerges to derail things there’s a very good prognosis for the next few months. It’s going to get better and better through to April, and then probably for a bit longer.”

One complicating factor: the Delta variant. Though it’s been overshadowed by Omicron in the U.S., it hasn’t gone away, Shea said.

“For now, at least in the U.S.A., both strains are circulating quite widely,” she said. “Delta can definitely cause a lot of trouble with hospitalizations and deaths and the mix of the two makes it a challenge to know what’s going to happen in any given area because you have this more transmissible but less severe variant and then a less transmissible but much more severe variant.”

What the U.S. also has, however, after Omicron, is lots more immunity. And that could prove protective against Delta or other variants.

“Omicron has sort of gone through and infected a huge percentage of the population very quickly and likely gotten into those few nooks and crannies out there of people who have not seen the virus in any form, whether it be vaccination or natural infection yet,” said Justin Lessler, PhD, a professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina and also a researcher with the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub. “I think there’s a good chance that the next time a variant arises that the rates of hospitalization and death we see are going to be Omicron like or less.”

So does this mean the pandemic is over -- that COVID-19 will soon become ‘endemic?’

“Are we in a state where things are going to become less of a big deal because we have so much immunity,” Lessler asked. “I think the answer is probably yes.”

But, he added, to epidemiologists, endemicity comes with predictability about what a pathogen is going to do -- and Lessler said we’re probably not quite there yet with COVID-19.

“Things have surprised us before,” Shea said. “And it’s not over until it’s really over.”

And, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, it’s not over for most of the United States -- with nearly twice as many states reporting rising coronavirus cases this week as states reporting falling cases.

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