RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — We know omicron is, on average, milder than other COVID-19 variants.

Yet we also could be in for yet another wave of deaths from the virus.

How can both of those things be true?

It comes down to simple math — about how the death rate factors into the massive number of people who have caught the virus.

A small percentage (the death rate) of a huge number (the record-setting number of new cases) can still work out to another huge number (the number of deaths).

“You can be a little more mild, and if you have 10 times as many people (sick), you end up with more people overall in hospital and more people die,” said Dr. Cameron Wolfe, an infectious disease expert at the Duke University School of Medicine. “The mortality rate can be less, but the sheer number of cases can outstrip that, and I think that’s exactly what we’ve seen.”

Waves of COVID-19 tend to follow a similar pattern, with the count of emergency-room visits often the first number to rise, followed by new cases, then hospital admissions days or weeks later, and ultimately, deaths.

And as North Carolina surpassed its latest grim milestone of the pandemic — its 20,000th death — earlier this week, we appear to be at the outset of another increase in fatalities. Nationally, modelers forecast up to 300,000 more Americans could die by the end of the wave in a few months.

“The deaths are starting to tick up,” said Dr. Erica Pettigrew, a family practice physician and assistant professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. “They are not as high comparatively to other waves. … The omicron surge is showing an uptick in deaths, and so we are waiting to see how high they will climb.”

Roughly 3 of 5 people in the state are considered fully vaccinated and omicron has a tendency to be milder, and experts agree those things should help.

But while the increase shouldn’t be as steep as during previous surges, there will be a surge because there are still too many people vulnerable to getting seriously sick.

“I think people should be highly aware that … unfortunately, the number of deaths is still going to rise,” Wolfe said. “There’s just no way around that.”

We know omicron spreads quickly, and its incubation period is so much shorter than other COVID-19 strains that it makes contact tracing nearly impossible.

Might omicron kill people that quickly, too?

Both Pettigrew and Wolfe say they don’t know for certain.

Pettigrew says there are “some markers that suggest that everything may be a bit compressed here.”

But Wolfe says he doesn’t think the timeline “is any different at this point.

“I think that the lag that you will still see between infections, hospitalizations and ultimately mortality is still going to be there,” Wolfe said. “I don’t think we’ll see the deaths quicker than what we did in the past.”


CBS 17’s Joedy McCreary has been tracking COVID-19 figures since March 2020, compiling data from federal, state, and local sources to deliver a clear snapshot of what the coronavirus situation looks like now and what it could look like in the future.