RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — We’re used to waiting days and weeks for the effects of a single event to show up in our COVID-19 numbers.

But that wait could be shorter this time around because of how quickly the omicron variant causes symptoms to show up.

“I expect everything to ramp up faster,” said Dr. Dirk Dittmer, who runs the COVID-19 sequencing lab at the University of North Carolina.

The state Department of Health and Human Services added more than 32,000 new cases over the past six days and said the count of patients in hospitals grew to nearly 2,000 on Tuesday.

But those increases probably don’t reflect any spread that took place around the Christmas holiday gatherings because it takes time for transmission to lead to infections and tests once symptoms appear.

“We’re used to the fact that there usually is a little bit of an incubation period,” said Dr. Adia Ross, the chief medical officer at Duke Regional Hospital.

That’s not nearly as long when it comes to omicron and its shorter incubation period, and that can speed up the overall timeline of a potential spike by a few days. Positive tests that might not come for 7-10 days after an infection by another variant can show up much quicker with omicron, which causes symptoms in 3-4 days.

“It’s very clear that omicron spreads faster,” Dittmer said.

That could mean less time in limbo, and a faster look at precisely what kind of surge we’re in for.

“It could be,” Ross said, stressing that “it’s hard to tell right now.”

It also could work in reverse, Dittmer said.

“The silver lining is, and Dr. Fauci mentioned that, that it will also go down faster,” he said.

Omicron now accounts for 20 percent of the most recent cases sequenced by a UNC lab. A week earlier, that rate was below 3 percent.

Even though the results may show up faster than usual, Dittmer says there’s still time to prepare — which means getting vaccinated and boosted, and keeping rapid tests handy — while comparing an omicron surge to a hurricane or blizzard.

“You prepare for omicron like you would prepare for the inevitable winter storm that’s going to come in February,” he said.

Among the updated numbers from NCDHHS, both doctors say they are keeping a close watch on the number of patients who are being treated in hospitals. That climbed by 18 percent in just one week, to 1,992.

“Because that is what’s going to drive our health overall,” Dittmer said. “If the hospital is full of COVID patients, they can’t take care of traffic accidents, and we know that for New Year’s (Eve), there’ll be a lot of people coming to the hospital for a lot of other reasons.”


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.