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Mayo Clinic: Omicron cases likely to double in Minnesota

The Mayo Clinic's modeling project is its digital crystal ball for identifying emerging high-transmission hot spots across the country. Mayo data scientist Dr. Curtis Storlie says Minnesota is now on track to double its highest case numbers. "We're probably half way," Storlie said. "From what we're seeing ... the peak in cases could be anywhere from next week to the first week of February, with an estimate of Jan. 24 as our case peak for the state."

MAYO COVID RATES 011422.jpg
Mayo Clinic predictive modeling suggests a coming omicron wave could double the previous COVID-19 high water mark for new cases in Minnesota, then fall off a cliff by February. In the graph, IQR is interquartile range, and CI is confidence interval.
Contributed graphic / Mayo Clinic COVID-19 Predictive Analytics Task Force
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ROCHESTER — Strap in: Things are about to get worse before they get better.

That's the short answer for what lies ahead for Minnesota in the coming weeks, given an expected peak for an unprecedented surge in COVID-19 omicron case numbers as forecast by Mayo Clinic predictive modeling.

If previous COVID-19 peaks have resembled the foothills of a mountain range, the coming surge is expected to resemble a rocket ship headed straight up.

"This is going to be a really quick rise, and a really quick fall," said Mayo Clinic data scientist Dr. Curtis Storlie. "We're not talking about months of wearing masks. But for the next few weeks, man it's going to become important in order to keep this peak down."

The Mayo Clinic's modeling project is its digital crystal ball for identifying emerging high-transmission hot spots across the country. The project has forecast the rise and fall of case numbers down to the county level.

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"We're probably half way," Storlie said. "From what we're seeing ... the peak in cases could be anywhere from next week to the first week of February, with an estimate of Jan. 24 as our case peak for the state."

As of early January, Minnesota was recording a seven-day average of 138 infections daily per 100,000 residents, a figure representing the highest rate of the pandemic thus far.

Storlie says Minnesota is now on track to double its highest case numbers. Mayo's middle-of-the-road estimate predicts omicron cases could peak at more than 300 cases per 100,000 residents. The low end of this range predicts at least 250 cases per 100,000 residents, while the high end depicts over 400 cases per 100,000 residents.

"We know that omicron is much more rapidly transmitted than delta, and that's why it's leading to this very rapid rise," said Dr. Shannon Dunlay of the Mayo Clinic COVID-19 predictive modeling initiative. "Fortunately it does tend to produce a somewhat milder disease, but the sheer case volume is problematic."

"Even if the risk is half as much," Dunlay said, "if you have four times as many cases, that will still lead to a total increase in hospitalization."

The Mayo Clinic cautions that predictions are fluid and are updated as new data come in. But for added perspective, Minnesota regards just 10 cases per 100,000 residents as the threshold for "high risk" rate of spread.

Dropping like a stone

The good news: Storlie sees case numbers plummeting after the coming peak, simply as a function of the virus exhausting its supply of bodily homes with naive immune systems. It is a U-turn pattern that has already played out in countries that have faced the omicron variant earlier than the U.S.

"You run into a situation where, in order for us to hover there, people would have to get reinfected with omicron, like, two weeks after they had an infection," Storlie said. "Which on the whole, is just not biologically feasible."

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"We'll come way back down to the 50, 40, 30, or 20 cases per 100,000 residents and, after that, we'll probably have a little bit of a quiet period."

A strong defense

Clinicians stress that if it is an inescapable fate, the coming omicron storm should be used as a window for Minnesotans to put up their very strongest defenses against infection.

"We're not going to be saved from getting up to these high numbers of cases," Storlie said. "What we do have the power to do is keep this thing down to 300 cases per 100,000. The things we have control over are going to get boosted if we are eligible, and to wear a mask in crowded spaces."

While boosters cannot always prevent infection, Storlie says, the data are clear that they reduce transmission.

"If we look at a mid-December time frame until now ... in terms of preventing infection, booster vaccinations are about three to four times more effective than no vaccination, and about two to three more effective than a regular course of vaccination."

"There's still the option to get your booster," Dunlay added. "There's still time. It will make you less likely to get infected, and if you do get infected, to have a milder course and to avoid hospitalization and bad outcomes."

There's also the impact that individual acts to dodge the coming surge will have on others around them.

"As a transplant cardiologist, I'm especially sensitive to this issue," Dunlay said. "That even if you're not worried because you don't have any medical conditions yourself, or you're young and think omicron might not cause you to have severe illness, there are others that are older, or who have chronic medical conditions, or who are immune-suppressed because of a transplant, and they could contract omicron from you or from someone else and get severely ill. We're all in this together."

Paul John Scott is the health correspondent for NewsMD and the Forum News Service. He is a novelist and was an award winning magazine journalist for 15 years prior to joining the FNS in 2019.
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