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COVID-19 cases are down in Cleveland and Akron. How will we know when the omicron surge is over?

Cars packed a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site in Cleveland in late December as cases began to rise due to the omicron variant. Health officials say the surge is now subsiding. [Virginia Bardwell]
Cars packed a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site in Cleveland in late December as cases began to rise due to the omicron variant. Health officials say the surge is now subsiding. [Virginia Bardwell]

COVID-19 cases continue to fall in Northeast Ohio, but officials say we aren’t out of the woods of the omicron surge yet.

Summit County is seeing about 400 new cases reported per day, down from about 1,400 per day in the beginning of January, according to health commissioner Donna Skoda.

But the numbers need to get down to what they were before the delta wave last year before health officials can declare the surge is over, she said.

“By June [2021], we were dead – about 10 cases per day. And then on July 1, here comes delta, and right after delta came omicron,” Skoda said. “So when we get down low, numbers like 10, 12 cases, I think we can safely say we’re through it.” 

Experts differ on how long it might take until cases reach this level.

Dr. Steven Gordon, chairman of infectious disease at Cleveland Clinic, said omicron moved through the Cleveland area fast and seems to be dropping quickly, too.

“The wave came on like a fury and is going down, as well, faster than the other [waves],” Gordon said. “Our peak has hit here in Northeast Ohio, and I would predict by Valentine’s Day, right, that we’d be on a real downward slope.”

Skoda, on the other hand, wonders if the numbers will slowly decline.

“I do think it will take a while to get those numbers down, just because, you know, 400 a day is still a lot,” she said. “It’s going to take us a while to get all the way down … and hopefully, if your fingers are crossed and your toes are crossed, nothing else comes behind it.”

The subsiding omicron surge might mirror last winter’s slow decrease in cases, she added. Last year at this time, Northeast Ohio was coming down from a similar wave of cases and hospitalizations. Cases slowly dropped throughout the spring of 2021 until the highly contagious delta variant began circulating in late summer, Skoda said.

The virus is constantly mutating, so some health officials are concerned another highly contagious variant like omicron could drive up the cases in the future.

But Skoda said the virus appears to become less severe as it mutates, so she’s optimistic we won’t see another deadly surge in the future.

“If this continues to mutate that way, and just become more bothersome, shall we say, than deadly … I think that is possible,” Skoda said.

Gordon agrees that future upticks in cases will likely cause fewer severe cases and hospitalizations due to the mutating variants and immunity that the population has developed, either through immunization or prior infection.

“You’ll still hear people talk about ‘well, there’s still the potential for … a variant that’s going to wipe us out.’ I guess that’s possible, but it doesn’t keep me up at night,” Gordon said.

Half of the world’s population has been exposed to omicron, Gordon added, which means there will be some collective natural immunity built up to the virus over time, like bodies have done with seasonal illnesses like the flu. However, COVID-19 antibodies seem to wane after a certain time period.

“There will still be some people who get really sick from seasonal coronavirus, but the hope is that since all of us have been exposed to this pathogen … that, again, it’s going to attenuate some of the severe outcomes such as death,” he said.

On Monday, Ohio reported 9,774 new COVID-19 cases, a sharp drop from the 21-day average of 21,109. While health officials say cases have already peaked in the Cleveland and Akron areas, the southern and central regions of the state are still being hit hard.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.