CHICAGO — New coronavirus cases have started to fall nationally, signaling that the Omicron-fueled spike that has infected tens of millions of Americans, packed hospitals and shattered records has finally begun to relent.
More and more states have passed a peak in new cases in recent days, as glimmers of progress have spread from a handful of eastern cities to much of the country. Through Thursday, the country was averaging about 736,000 new cases a day, down from about 807,000 last week. New coronavirus hospital admissions have leveled off.
Even as hopeful data points emerge, the threat has by no means passed. The United States continues to identify far more infections a day than in any prior surge, and some states in the West, South and Great Plains are still seeing sharp increases. Many hospitals are full. And deaths continue to mount, with more than 2,000 announced most days.
But following a month of extraordinary rates of case growth, blocklong lines at testing centers and military deployments to bolster understaffed I.C.U.s, the declining new-case tallies offered a sense of relief to virus-weary Americans, especially in the Northeast and parts of the Upper Midwest, where the trends were most encouraging. After another round of masking up or hunkering down, some were considering what life might look like if conditions continued to improve.
“Especially after this wave, the level of exhaustion in New York City cannot be exaggerated, and the level of numbness is quite significant,” said Mark D. Levine, Manhattan’s borough president. He added: “What we have to do now is not pretend like Covid has disappeared, but manage it to the point where it does not disrupt our life.”
In states where new cases have started to fall, the declines have so far been swift and steep, largely mirroring the rapid ascents that began in late December. Those patterns have resembled the ones seen in South Africa, the country whose scientists warned the world about Omicron, and the first place to document a major surge of the variant. New cases in South Africa have fallen 84 percent from their mid-December peak, to about 3,700 cases a day from a high of 23,400, though they remain above the levels seen in the weeks before Omicron took hold.
Scientists said it remained an open question whether Omicron marked the transition of the coronavirus from a pandemic to a less-threatening endemic virus, or whether future surges or variants would introduce a new round of tumult.
“It’s important for people to not be like, ‘Oh, it’s over,’” said Aubree Gordon, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan. “It’s not over until we get back down to a lull. We’re not there yet.”