Covid Triumphalism

Let's not start celebrating just yet.

At NYT, David Leonhardt proclaims “Omicron Is in Retreat.” His evidence is familiar and reassuring.


The latest Omicron developments continue to be encouraging. New Covid-19 cases are plummeting in a growing list of places. The percentage of cases causing severe illness is much lower than it was with the Delta variant. And vaccines — particularly after a booster shot — remain extremely effective in preventing hospitalization and death.

More granularly:

Since early last week, new cases in Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey and New York have fallen by more than 30 percent. They’re down by more than 10 percent in Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. In California, cases may have peaked.

“Let’s be clear on this — we are winning,” Mayor Eric Adams of New York said yesterday. Kathy Hochul, the governor of New York State, said during a budget speech, “We hope to close the books on this winter surge soon.”

If anything, the official Covid numbers probably understate the actual declines, because test results are often a few days behind reality.


The U.S. seems to be following a similar Omicron pattern as South Africa, Britain and several other countries: A rapid, enormous surge for about a month, followed by a rapid decline — first in cases, then hospitalizations and finally deaths.


Some of the clearest research on Covid’s risks comes from a team of British researchers led by Dr. Julia Hippisley-Cox of the University of Oxford. The team has created an online calculator that allows you to enter a person’s age, vaccination status, height and weight, as well as major Covid risk factors. (It’s based on an analysis of British patients, but its conclusions are relevant elsewhere.)

A typical 65-year-old American woman — to take one example — is five foot three inches tall and weighs 166 pounds. If she had been vaccinated and did not have a major Covid risk factor, like an organ transplant, her chance of dying after contracting Covid would be 1 in 872, according to the calculator. For a typical 65-year-old man, the risk would be 1 in 434.

Among 75-year-olds, the risk would be 1 in 264 for a typical woman and 1 in 133 for a typical man.

Those are meaningful risks. But they are not larger than many other risks older people face. In the 2019-20 flu season, about 1 out of every 138 Americans 65 and older who had flu symptoms died from them, according to the C.D.C.

And Omicron probably presents less risk than the British calculator suggests, because it uses data through the first half of 2021, when the dominant version of Covid was more severe than Omicron appears to be. One sign of Omicron’s relative mildness: Among vaccinated people in Utah (a state that publishes detailed data), the percentage of cases leading to hospitalization has been only about half as high in recent weeks as it was last summer.

For now, the available evidence suggests that Omicron is less threatening to a vaccinated person than a normal flu. Obviously, the Omicron wave has still been damaging, because the variant is so contagious that it has infected tens of millions of Americans in a matter of weeks. Small individual risks have added up to large societal damage.

This is, indeed, hopeful news. Signs have been pointing in this direction for weeks now and many, myself included, have expressed hope that the combination of vaccinations and natural immunity from relatively low-impact infections would wipe this thing out.

But, as the Wolf cautions, let’s not start celebrating just yet. Daily new cases and daily new deaths in the US are still are near-peak highs. Hospitals are still having trouble meeting the demand for new COVID patients. And, while Omicron certainly seems far less deadly than Delta and other previous incarnations, “natural immunity,” much like the “immunity” conferred by vaccination, is far from total or permanent. [For new readers: I’m vaxxed and boosted as are my family members and strongly advocate people get their shots. But the reality is that breakthrough cases exist and immunity, even from boosters, seems to decline relatively quickly.]

There’s room for hope that this is the beginning of the end. But it would be foolish, indeed, to condition our public health policy or our personal behavior based on these hopes. Indeed, doing so might well lead to a self-negating prophecy. It’s certainly no time to let up on masking—indeed, we should all be in K/N95s now—and boosting.

Nor is there any guarantee that whatever variant follows Omicron will be as mild or milder. And, while the developed world is vaccinated and boosted at disappointing levels, it’s light years beyond where most of the Global South is. New strains will continue coming.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. charon says:

    New strains will continue coming.

    I have seen speculation that omicron evolved in mice and jumped back to humans, why it has developed so many mutations before becoming prevalent.

    I any case deer, rodents, carnivores etc. are wild animal reservoirs that we can’t do much about.

  2. Jen says:

    @charon: The Chinese are addressing that by mass killings of pet hamsters and gerbils and whatnot.

    It’s going to be unsuccessful. We already know that humans can transmit covid to a wide variety of animals, everything from deer to tigers to gorillas to pet dogs and cats can catch covid from us. Minks can also transmit it back to humans. There is not going to be an effective way to corral this in animals without just going full mass extinction event.

  3. Kathy says:

    I’ve said this many times and it bears repeating: we have always been hit hard by COVID when we let our guard down.

    We see cases dropping, and we begin to gather without masks. Then cases spike and many are surprised. This has happened due to new variants, yes. delta last summer, and Omicron this winter. but there was the big spike in the summer of 2020 when lockdowns were lifted and other restrictions eased.

    Look at it this way: you don’t want to catch it when we’re “winning.”

  4. Kathy says:


    It’s the same with flu. the last two bad flu outbreaks were bird flu and swine flu, both from farm animals.

    If/when this pandemic ends, we may manage things afterwards better with anual COVID shots and medication, assuming polyvalent vaccines to deal with several known and potential variants, plus that the anti-COVID pills work well and can be produced in quantity.

  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    We’re approaching a critical point. Right now Omicron is reason enough to avoid social engagements you prefer to avoid. (All of them.) But there’s enough hope that I can still book a vacation in May.

  6. Sleeping Dog says:

    Leonhardt is good because he backs his assertions with facts from reputable sources. The data shows Covid has peaked in NY, NJ and probably in the Boston area, but not the rest of Mass. The predictable risk here is that someone from say MN will read this and say good times and not check to see what the reality is in Minnie. The other day I checked on the predicted peak for NH and the best prediction that I found was February. While that is good news it is also a 4 week window, so I’m not planning on restaurant reservations just yet. I’d hoped for a narrower prediction, say mid Feb, or late Feb, but realistically, a 4 week window is the best you can expect.

  7. Andy says:

    It was clear early on that Omicron was a fast-burner so a fast peak and fast decline is not surprising. But given the ability of variants to avoid resistance from having a previous variant or vaccine, I’m not yet betting that this is the beginning of the end.

  8. gVOR08 says:

    Omicron will probably drop back to some low level. Barring some new variant we’ll drop restrictions, vaccination and masking rates will drop way off, and we’ll sit cheek to jowl in poorly ventilated sports bars. At some point each of us will look around and decide this is normal, despite some unnecessary, but low by comparison, ongoing rate of new cases and deaths. Then GOPs will campaign on, “See, we told you this is what we should have been doing all along, we win.” despite the whole point having been to not swamp the hospitals, which we, so far, have just barely managed. Then some day the Tau variant, or an altogether new virus, will catch us completely unprepared, rinse, and repeat.

  9. Jax says:

    Omicron hasn’t even really hit Wyoming yet, we’re still dealing with a Delta surge in most counties, according to the stats on the state’s website. The exception being Teton county (where the ski resorts are) and Albany county, where the University of Wyoming is. I assume it’ll be a month before it’s fully established as the dominant strain statewide.

  10. Kathy says:


    The problem is that idiot scientists named the first variant Alpha. If they’d named it Omega, it would have been the last. No Delta, no Omicron, and we’d all be free now.

  11. Cheryl Rofer says:

    Leonhardt occasionally does a good column, but his desire for the pandemic to be over more often overwhelms his reportorial capacity, as here.

    If we can get back down to a *mere* thousand deaths a day, Dave is ready to toss his mask! Actually, he’s ready now. Such a waste of newsprint/electrons.

  12. Gustopher says:


    There is not going to be an effective way to corral this in animals without just going full mass extinction event.

    I have some good news about global warming and the collapse of ecosystems…

  13. Just nutha says:

    In my little corner of the universe, 1028 confirmed cases and 447 suspected cases for a grand total of 1475. In a population of 110,000 with abt 50k of that living in 2 adjacent urban-ish areas.

    I think “slammed” is the word I’m looking for.

  14. gVOR08 says:

    @Kathy: Why Omega? If they wanted to go to the end wouldn’t be Zeta? /s

  15. Gustopher says:

    @Just nutha: is that per day? I thought Seattle’s 1% infected every 4 days was bad.

    I guess I haven’t looked in a few days…

  16. Dude Kembro says:

    @Kathy: Danggum scientists and their woke virus names.

  17. Kathy says:

    @Dude Kembro:

    We really ought to have seen it coming with hurricane names.


    You’ll notice they skipped that one. Why?

  18. wr says:

    @Michael Reynolds: “But there’s enough hope that I can still book a vacation in May.”

    The sweet spot is when the risk is low enough to book a vacation but high enough to beg off a book tour…

  19. Gustopher says:

    @gVOR08: I am the Alpha and the Zeta, the Beginning and the Somewhere Around A Quarter Of The Way Through.

  20. Michael Reynolds says:

    Have you been bugging my wife’s phone?

  21. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: No, it’s the number for the previous week. But again that for an area where half the county lives in 2 adjacent towns (separated by the Cowlitz River–except where only the city border line separates the two). And it’s up from 550 the previous week.

    It’s not big numbers from a Seattle perspective, but the county’s population is only 1/30th of Seattle Metro’s, too. (But it is 1/7th of the city’s population, so we might be pikers by comparison.) Either way, we still have only every other person completely vaxxed. (And likes us a big heaping helping of FG’s MAGAness.)

  22. Gustopher says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: That’s about Seattle numbers — 1.5% of the population infected in a week. Welcome to the big leagues!

    I thought it was daily and that would be amazing.

  23. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I assume May is another wave or so. Best bet might be to wait until the last moment when you decide that the risk levels are fine and then immediately go.

    Pity that book tours cannot be scheduled at the last minute though.

  24. Michael Reynolds says:

    Well, short of yet another variant, we are in the air May 1, then London, Mykonos, Istanbul, Florence, Valencia, Lisbon, Paris and back to London. Home on June 30.

    Looking, in part at least, for a place to live.