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When will Omicron peak? A Penn State professor shares national COVID-19 modeling team's projections

hands prepping a COVID-19 injection
Matt Rourke/AP
/
AP
A syringe is prepared with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in the Norristown Public Health Center in Norristown, Pa., Tuesday, Dec. 7, 2021.

Katriona Shea, an Alumni Professor in the biological sciences at Penn State, is co-leader of the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub Coordination Team. It brings together researchers from institutions across the United States to offer projections on the pandemic and advise the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. WPSU’s Anne Danahy spoke with Shea about what we might expect from Omicron and the pandemic.

Here is their conversation:

Anne Danahy 
Katriona Shea, thank you so much for talking with us.

Katriona Shea 
It's a pleasure to be here.

Anne Danahy 
The team you work with pulls together a range of possible scenarios for the COVID-19 pandemic. What are the current projections for what we might expect to see from Omicron?

Katriona Shea 
Yes, well, as you are already seeing from the data, we are expecting a big surge in January. And there is a lot of uncertainty about exactly how big that surge might be, or exactly when it might be. But not that much. It's going to happen probably during mid to late January, nationwide, with some slight regional variations. But it'll be pretty much coming down in early February. And we hoped dropping to relatively low levels through March, but we only projected out through March this year. And all of this depends on there being no other new variants coming in on top of Omicron.

Anne Danahy 
So when you're saying that those could be peaking in the next couple of weeks, we're already seeing case numbers go way up in Pennsylvania, and way up in central Pennsylvania too.

Katriona Shea 
Yes, we are. And that's why I said in a sense, it's not really a surprise what we're seeing in the models. However, what we did want to know is how long will it keep going, you know, just because it's going up now you have no idea when it's going to turn around. And all our projections suggest that by the end of January, maybe the first week of February will be the turning point. And this is from multiple models that all have looked at what's going on both nationally and at the state level in the USA.

Anne Danahy 
There are reports that Omicron may mean a less serious infection, especially for the fully vaccinated. But there's still concerns that because of the sheer number, what that could actually mean for hospitals, health care workers that are already strained. Is that a valid concern?

Katriona Shea 
Absolutely, absolutely. So there's so many different factors playing into this at once. It looks like it's way, way easier to catch. So you need to be very, very careful with things like masks and getting vaccinated. It looks like around six months after you get fully vaccinated, you really do need to get a booster in order to have some protection against Delta and Omicron. Remember, Delta is also still circulating in the region. Even if it's less severe, that's not a surprise, we saw that with earlier versions, you had asymptomatic cases, very mild cases. And then cases that are severe enough to require hospitalization, emergency care, intubation or lead to death, right. So we see such a spectrum of outcomes. And that is true, it just seems to be pushed down to the nicer end of that spectrum with Omicron. But if you're vaccinated — and these days, I would say fully vaccinated, you really do want that booster because around six months after your initial dose — it looks like your immunity starts to drop down. So there's a lot at play, the way to think about it is it may be, on average, less bad. But if a lot more people catch it, because it's so easy to catch, a lot more people are going to just get sick overall. So it may not be you but it may be somebody you know and love.

Anne Danahy 
Right. There's parts of central and northcentral Pennsylvania where the vaccination rates are comparatively low. Do you and other scientists have projections yet for what Omicron could mean for those places in Pennsylvania?

Katriona Shea 
Definitely worse, where people aren't vaccinated, a lot of people may be fine. And the thing with a less severe variant is that may mean more people are asymptomatic or just have a mild sniffle or don't realize they're even Ill then they're walking around. And it's more easy to catch just gives you a ton more opportunities to pass this on to someone to whom it could mean life or death.

Anne Danahy 
And that doesn't mean that once it goes back down again, it goes away completely.

Katriona Shea 
No, unfortunately not. So it will go down and it may in some places go down as low as it was late last summer. But you know, new variants have come along every six to eight months. And it's possible that that will happen again until we can really get people fully vaccinated globally, and you have to remember people have been away over the holidays, and maybe have been in Europe or in South America and the Caribbean for a vacation and then they may be bringing back variants that we do not even know about yet to central Pennsylvania. It's all possible. And the problem is we don't know. So if if you want to be careful, I would just be doing the best you can by getting vaccinated, getting boosted as soon as you're eligible and wearing masks and probably really good tight fitting masks or maybe move to double masking now because this is a very contagious variant.

Anne Danahy 
We're just finishing the holidays and a lot of young people are going back to school, back into other activities. How can parents with children either too young to be vaccinated or vaccinated but they still have concerns navigate the next few weeks?

Katriona Shea 
Well, it's definitely going to be a problem with the surge. And I do expect that increasing numbers of teachers and students will call out sick. But the first thing is get your children vaccinated, if they're eligible. Get them boosted, if they're eligible. If they're not eligible, consider double masking, maybe driving them to school, instead of putting them on a crowded school bus. Those are all options that you can take without wrapping your children up in cotton wool to the extent that they don't get an education or see their friends at all. And you need to find a happy medium between being careful, and actually preventing them from living a full and educated life.

Anne Danahy 
Your team in a statement about the Omicron wave said that if we use the tools available, many of the worst outcomes can be avoided. Is that still true?

Katriona Shea 
I think we can because even since we ran this emergency round for the CDC, information has come in where our most pessimistic severity scenarios just clearly are not what we would expect. And so we're not even presenting those results. And we're basically saying that was some wasted effort where we had a look at what could it mean, but luckily for us, it isn't looking as bad as data comes in. We're refining what we will ask and what we have asked and what we'll ask in future rounds as well.

Anne Danahy 
Kat Shea. Thank you so much for talking with us.

Katriona Shea 
It's a huge pleasure to be here. Thanks, Anne.

Anne Danahy is a reporter at WPSU. She was a reporter for nearly 12 years at the Centre Daily Times in State College, Pennsylvania, where she earned a number of awards for her coverage of issues including the impact of natural gas development on communities.
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  • Katriona Shea, an Alumni Professor in the biological sciences at Penn State, is co-leader of a national team that advises the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Known as the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub Coordination Team, it brings together researchers from institutions across the United States to offer projections on the pandemic. Shea spoke with WPSU about how scientific modeling works, how it can be used when dealing with pandemics and the Omicron variant.