Fact check: How realistic is Cohen’s projection of 10,000 new COVID cases per day at omicron peak?

North Carolina

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — Ten thousand new COVID-19 cases.

That’s how many Dr. Mandy Cohen says she expects the omicron variant to cause that many each day when it peaks.

But just how realistic is the Department of Health and Human Services secretary’s projection?

THE CLAIM: “I don’t want to give specifics here. But I think we could see as many as 10,000 cases a day at the peak. It is that infectious,” Cohen said earlier this week.

THE FACTS: “That number does sound right,” said Dr. David Weber, an infectious disease specialist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.

Weber called it “very reasonable” to expect that many cases a day across the state during the next 1-4 weeks.

We asked NCDHHS where Cohen’s number came from.

“In previous surges, such as earlier this summer with the surge of delta and last winter before vaccines were widely available, we were seeing daily case counts peak between 8,000-10,000 cases per day,” spokeswoman Catie Armstrong said. 

“With holiday gatherings, and cases rising, we know that the very contagious omicron variant of COVID-19 is already spreading in North Carolina. Omicron is rapidly replacing delta nationally and globally, and we expect it will become the predominant variant in North Carolina in the coming weeks,” she continued.

Weber says the projection makes sense because of how fast the variant spreads.

“This is not a surprising number that she developed,” he said. “And I’m sure it’s based on the analysis of North Carolina’s own data.”

In the 21 months of the pandemic, the daily case count has topped 10,000 only five times — and two of those were due to data glitches, including the single-day record of 12,079 cases on Feb. 3 of this year.

But this could be different, Weber said.

“If you look at what’s happening around the world, and all over the world, you can see an explosive rise of omicron with a tremendous increase in cases,” Weber said.

Omicron might wind up being less likely than delta to cause severe COVID, which could result in a lower hospitalization rate.

Yet with such massive case numbers, that might not matter because a small percentage of a really big number is still a really big number.

“If the cases double or triple, then even though per 100 cases, less people get admitted to the hospital, it may me that we will have substantial problems across North Carolina,” Weber said.

This projection from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington shows how many new cases North Carolina could see during the coming three months. (https://covid19.healthdata.org/)

A popular projection from the University of Washington projects the possibility of even higher case numbers.

Under its worst-case scenario, we could have a maximum of more than 21,000 new cases on Jan. 28, before those numbers start to drop off throughout February.

But that projection includes the people catching the virus without being tested. It also says with universal masking, the daily case counts will drop below 650 a day by New Year’s Day.

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