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Has the spread of Covid-19 peaked in the U.S.? What future Covid spread could look like

New cases have been gradually dropping nationwide, although experts caution that new infections are still at a high rate and further decline will be slow.
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The number of new Covid-19 cases in the United States seems to have peaked, with cases in states hit hard by the delta variant earlier edging downward over the last week, according to an analysis by NBC News. It’s the longest sustained decline in cases in nearly three months, giving hope to some leading pandemic forecasters.

Some hospitals in areas of the country with low vaccination rates are still in crisis mode, but overall the hospitalization rate in the U.S. has dropped, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This week, Covid deaths in the U.S. topped 685,027, more than the estimated 675,000 people who died during the 1918-19 Spanish flu pandemic. On Thursday, Florida, a delta variant hot spot, tied its seven-day reported deaths average set two days before, with 376 lives lost.

Further drop in the number of new Covid cases will be stubbornly slow, experts warn. Yet, there are glimmers of light.

New Covid cases reached a high point Sept. 13, with a seven-day average of cases at 166,807, NBC News data finds. Since then, cases have been gradually dropping nationwide for seven of the last eight days. It’s the most consistent decline since June 23, a time period before the delta variant took hold in the U.S.

“There's pretty decent agreement that we’re at the peak in cases nationally,” said Shaun Truelove, assistant scientist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “There's quite a bit of variability between states, but as a whole, it seems that we're at or near the peak of this thing.”

It will not be a sharp decline like we saw a sharp rise.

Truelove is part of a team that works on the COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub, a series of models that estimates the trajectory of the virus at both national and local levels. Based on Johns Hopkins projections, cases will continue to decline nationally until at least January 2022, the end point of its current estimates.

Truelove is cautiously optimistic about the coming months. “Barring any rapid new change to the virus, that's kind of the direction we're going to continue to go — downward,” he said.

A 'slow burn' of high case counts

Ali Mokdad, chief strategy officer at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington in Seattle, is also hopeful that — although there may be increases in cases in areas of low vaccination — cases nationally should continue to decline in the near future.

However, he projects a “slow burn” of relatively high case counts.

For full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

“It will not be a sharp decline like we saw a sharp rise,” Mokdad warned.There could be a bump around the December holidays due to seasonality of the virus, potential relaxation of physical distancing measures, and any waning immunity from the vaccines, he said.

The current surge of cases, driven by the delta variant, took off rapidly earlier this summer to the surprise of many infectious disease modelers.

“The delta variant has been really challenging to predict,” Truelove said. “Initially we didn't think [cases] were going to go as high as they did.”

He is hopeful that although there may be increases in cases in areas of low vaccination, nationally cases should continue to decline in the near future. According to the CDC, more than 182 million people, about 55 percent of the U.S. population, are fully vaccinated against Covid.

Jeffrey Shaman, an infectious disease modeler at Columbia University, agreed that for the current surge, the peak in cases appears to be over. However, he cautioned that because death counts tend to lag case counts by weeks, the U.S. could still see deaths rise in the next few days before peaking.

“I would imagine that it's going to be next week that we're probably going to see the peak of deaths nationally,” he said. “There may be some wiggle room there, but generally I'd say two to four weeks after the peak of cases, you can expect to see the peaks of deaths.”

Shaman is hopeful that despite the lifting of public health measures in certain areas, the U.S. will follow the path of his models and continue to see a downward trajectory in cases over the coming weeks and months.

“We have some governors and officials who are doing what seems to be their best to create conditions that are conducive for the spread of the virus,” he said, referring to the lack of mask mandates and even the outlawing of school mask mandates in certain states.

The Covid forecasters are very careful about saying whether the end of the pandemic in the U.S. is near. The ferocious spread of the delta variant in the country over the summer caught many by surprise.

“It was quite shocking,” Truelove said. “That’s just the nature of this pandemic. It just keeps throwing us curve balls that we wouldn't have expected and they continue to challenge us.”

He warned that projections could be thrown off by colder weather and the ever present potential for a new variant to emerge.

“Who knows what other variants are going to come around, or if we're going to have some surge for other reasons that we're really not anticipating at this point,” Truelove said.

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