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Experts predict Washington could see nearly 40,000 new COVID-19 infections per day in February

The omicron variant has health officials on high alert, predicting a huge wave of new infections. Yet, there’s still a large degree of uncertainty.

SEATTLE — The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) is predicting Washington state could see the number of daily COVID-19 infections hit roughly 38,700 in February 2022 due to the omicron variant.

If 80% of the public were to wear masks when leaving their homes, the latest projection for daily cases in Washington drops to around 28,000 by Feb. 2022.

While the prediction includes unconfirmed cases in individuals that don’t get tested, it is about six times higher than the predicted number of infections at the height of the delta variant wave in the state.

The latest predictions come amid a global surge in the omicron variant, which appears to be even more transmissible than the delta variant and better at evading previous immunity to COVID-19, whether gotten via vaccine or previous infection.

While the IHME is predicting infections will skyrocket, it does not predict hospitalizations or even deaths will reach the highest levels of the pandemic, which came during the recent delta wave in August and September.

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Still, the IHME is predicting the state could see roughly 30 COVID-19 deaths a day by the end of February. This is about 10 fewer than the peak in late August and early September when the seven-day rolling average was more than 40 deaths per day.

The discrepancy between the exponential rise in cases yet much lower rise in hospitalizations and deaths is in response to early data suggesting that omicron infection is not as severe as previous variants, especially delta.

“What we're seeing in the United Kingdom suggests that the infection-hospitalization rate for omicron is much lower,” said IHME Director Dr. Christopher Murray during a Wednesday morning briefing. “That is, the fraction of infections that end up being hospitalized is 90- 96% lower than for delta. And that's why we see a surge but not a catastrophic surge.”

As for case rates across the U.S., Murray said the IHME predicts there will be up to 400,000 cases reported a day by late January or early February, which doesn’t include those who are not tested and are asymptomatic.

Murray said throughout the U.S., the level of surge and strain on hospitals is expected to be similar to last winter.

Globally, the IHME predicts there will be more than 3 billion infections through the winter, with about 3 million confirmed cases.

Murray warned there is still a lot of uncertainty in terms of the severity of disease from omicron and the effectiveness of vaccines, especially third doses, whether long-term or short-term.

“We still suspect, from what we're seeing in the U.K. and other places with rapid increases, that perhaps our assumptions are too pessimistic. But for now, we think the reference scenario is the most consistent with the available data,” he explained.

On Tuesday, Washington state health officials urged all eligible residents to get a COVID-19 vaccine booster dose to protect against the all but certain surge in omicron cases. Additionally, flu shots are highly recommended with officials reporting the spread of Influenza A after a remaining mostly dormant last winter.

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