A data scientist who works closely with Mayo Clinic's Predictive Analytics Task Force says the omicron surge in Minnesota may have already peaked. But he warned that won't be immediately evident in the state's daily reports because reported cases lag behind what is actually happening in real time.
"We're seeing a peak starting to happen in Minnesota as early as even in the next week," said Dr. Curtis Storlie, speaking during a Wednesday morning press call.
"After that there will be an abrupt decline in cases for several weeks before we're back down to case levels that are, I guess what we would kind of consider, normal," Storlie continued.
But what's key is that Storlie was talking about reported cases, which lag what's happening in real time. As MPR's David Montgomery noted after the state reported more than 44,000 new cases on Wednesday, the majority of those cases were from more than a week ago.
"Let me be clear, when I say we're going to see our peak, I'm talking about reported cases, 7-day average. When we see a peak for reported cases, 7-day average, we've already had our peak because we're talking about a 7-day average first of all, but then we're talking about reported cases, which are also lagged," Storlie explained.
"It's very possible, in reality, that in many areas of the state we've already hit a peak and we'll see it in reported cases several days later."
The prediction from the Mayo Clinic corresponds with the data seen in coronavirus samples taken from Twin Cities metro area wastewater. According to the Metropolitan Council, the amount of SARS-CoV-2 detected in sewage dropped 35% from Jan. 6 to Jan. 13. Cases of COVID-19 in the community tend to follow wastewater trends about 6-8 days later, so a decrease in wastewater presence indicates a possible decrease in cases in the very near future.
What about hospitalizations?
Like reported cases, reported hospitalizations also lag what's happening in the real world. And while it's been common to hear Gov. Tim Walz and other state leaders say reported hospitalizations lag reported cases, that's not exactly the case on the ground level.
"Hospitalizations for us, it may seem weird, but they are not a lagging indicator with cases. We'll see case reports from the state and often times we'll see our hospitalizations rise in sync. Reason for that is reported cases are lagged but our hospitalizations are not," Storlie explained.
"I think it's been reported sometimes there's a two-week lag with hospitalizations. That's not really true in terms of actual hospitalizations for us. It may be true for what you're seeing with reported hospitalizations," he continued, "but it's not really lagged two weeks in reality. Some of these infections, they'll occur, onset of symptoms, it'll escalate. You're really seeing hospitalizations occur more like several days after infection more than two weeks."
Storlie expects to see "a little bit of a bump" in reported hospitalizations, but not as high as they got during the 2020 winter surge that peaked with more than 1,800 Minnesotans hospitalized with COVID-19.
As of Jan. 18, the reported hospitalizations statewide was 1,592.
What comes next?
What the pandemic's future is beyond the next several weeks is uncertain for two reasons, according to Storlie: 1) No one knows how the virus will evolve, i.e. new variants, and 2) It's unknown how willing the public will be to embrace the vaccine and booster doses.
"We'll have a pretty robust immunity for a while — for a honeymoon period — and cases will be low for several months, in all likelihood," said Storlie.
But just because omicron could fade in the coming weeks, the disease should still be taken seriously as it can result in severe illness, primarily for people who aren't vaccinated or boosted.
"On average, we're seeing less severity. But it's not that omicron is a less severe virus. If you're unvaccinated, you can still have severe illness with this, almost as likely as you had with the other variants. It's not something to take lightly," said Storlie.