Repeating Pattern on Steroids: Spikes in Omicron Numbers Similar to Earlier COVID-19 Surges but Dropping Much More Quickly

The big spike in new daily cases of the omicron variant of COVID-19 is now being followed with an equally fast drop, while death numbers are rising roughly four two six weeks after cases reached new heights.

To those who have been following the rise and fall of numbers during the pandemic, this should sound familiar. Omicron data is following much of the same patterns established when the original version of COVID, sometimes referred to as the alpha variant, spread throughout the world in late 2020 and early 2021. That pattern repeated during the summer as the delta variant spiked, as well.

The omicron surge reached its peak Jan. 22, when the 7-day moving average of new cases topped out at 13,410 cases per day. That’s more than 2½ times the previous record of 5,538 set by delta reached on Sept. 1, 2021, and more than triple the highest average during the original surge on Jan. 10 of last year.

In both of the earlier surges, the averages made steady declines over the following 10 to 13 weeks. After the alpha surge peak, 7-day averages fell by more than 90% and were down to 121 per day just after Independence Day. For delta, the averages sank by 95% just after Thanksgiving Day, then the case numbers started to increase again as omicron became the prevalent strain.

The rise of omicron cases has been about the same in duration as the previous surges, but the decline is quicker. From the peak just 18 days ago, the 7-day average had dropped to 3,533 as of Wednesday, a fall of almost three-fourths.

Much like the alpha and delta surges, increases in COVID-related deaths for omicron have lagged the new-case peaks by about four to six weeks. The good news in the latter case is that omicron deaths are far lower than either of the previous surges, at least for the moment, despite the much higher omicron case totals.

Alabama’s 7-day average of COVID deaths is at 33.27 per day as of Wednesday, up from 5.29 on Jan. 1. The 14-day average, which helps smooth out wildly fluctuating daily reports, is slightly higher at 34.78 compared to 7.29 on New Year’s Day. While those averages have moved up steadily since the beginning of the year, they are still nowhere close to the high death tolls seen in the alpha and delta surges. The record 7-day average was 154.29, set Jan. 29 of last year at the height of alpha’s worst period; a high of 134.57 during the delta surge was reached Sept. 23.

The lower number of deaths may be attributed in part to the less-severe symptoms connected to the strain. Many who tested positive for omicron have either had no symptoms, or their symptoms were light enough they mistakenly attributed them to common winter ailments. That’s partly because more people have been vaccinated before or during the recent surge, and those who have breakthrough cases usually suffer less-severe symptoms.

Furthermore, many public health officials believe that many more people have contracted the omicron variant than have been reported, either because those who tested positive using newly available home testing never told health agencies of their result, or because others weren’t tested at all because they felt no or light symptoms. Some public health agencies are now starting to rely less on case counts when deciding which direction to take on mask mandates and similar measures, and they’re focusing more on vaccination rates and hospitalization counts, instead.

Higher vaccinations also are playing a major role in keeping death tolls and hospitalizations down during the omicron surge, as those who contracted the variant despite being fully vaccinated have typically suffered much milder repercussions. New York became the latest state to remove mandates for face masks on people not fully vaccinated who entered indoor businesses, effective Thursday. Officials in that state cited drops in positivity rates and hospitalizations.

In Alabama, the number of hospital beds occupied by COVID patients had settled in the 330 range during November but started to creep upward in December and topped out at 2,946 on Jan. 25. In the two weeks since then, the Alabama Hospital Association reports that the bed count had dropped to 2,179 as of Tuesday, a decline of slightly more than 25%.

Statewide positivity rates, which show the average percentage of all COVID tests reported to the Alabama Department of Public Health that return positive results over a moving 7-day period, reached a new record on Jan. 19 of 44.9%. Since then, the rate has tumbled to 24.3% as of Wednesday. Anything over 10% is still considered high, and only Sumter County is currently below that rate.

Jefferson County’s positivity rate stands at 19.1%. Over the seven days ending Tuesday, the county had 3,080 new cases, an average of 440 per day. There were 43 deaths over the period.

BirminghamWatch uses data from the ADPH and the Alabama Hospital Association.