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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

This winter probably won't bring another crushing COVID wave, experts say.

Why it matters: Last winter was the deadliest phase of the pandemic, and many Americans are braced for cold weather to once again usher in a surge in cases and deaths. But there are good reasons to think this year won't be nearly as bad.

What they're saying: "I sort of think we're in a version of what our reality is going to be for the foreseeable future," Bob Wachter, chairman of the University of California, San Francisco Department of Medicine, told Axios.

  • "Maybe it gets 10 or 20% better, maybe it gets 10 or 20% worse. But I can't see it getting 90% better or 90% worse," he said.

State of play: A critical mass of Americans have been vaccinated — some even boosted — or have some natural immunity after having the illness. And vaccines for kids are expected soon.

  • That should protect against the sort of wide resurgences of severe illness the U.S. experienced last winter, said Justin Lessler, who helps run the University of North Carolina's COVID-19 Scenario Modeling Hub. Its models predict a steady drop in COVID cases through March.
  • It's possible that an another new variant will emerge, but "even if we do see some resurgences due to a more transmissible variant or people relaxing in their behaviors, I'd be very surprised if we saw surges to the level of last winter," Lessler said.

But, but, but: That's not to say we're out of the woods yet. We'll still see localized outbreaks and will have to continue taking precautions throughout the winter.

  • NIAID director Anthony Fauci told CBS' "Face the Nation"  last weekend it's "just too soon to tell" whether holiday gatherings should still be limited again this year.
  • While vaccines are expected to be approved for kids soon, there are still questions about how many parents will want to get their kids vaccinated. They may not be rolled out in time to get fully vaccinated before the holidays.

What we're watching: As Lessler points out, even the most optimistic models "aren't projecting us to getting back to levels we were seeing in early July until mid-March and that's a long time off."

  • Experts are also warning about the dual threat of increased risk for a bad flu season mixed with the ongoing COVID pandemic.

The bottom line: "I think as we enter the holidays and think about how to protect our families, it's important to remember we still have this long road ahead of us," Lessler said.

Go deeper

Updated Dec 6, 2021 - Health

NYC to impose vaccine mandate on private employers

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) on Monday announced a new COVID vaccine mandate for all private companies.

Why it matters: De Blasio, speaking on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," said the "first-in-the-nation measure" will go into effect starting Dec. 27. It will apply to approximately 184,000 businesses.

Dec 6, 2021 - Health

Cruise ship COVID outbreak: Louisiana officials find "probable" Omicron case

The Norwegian Breakaway cruise ship. Photo: Gerard Bottino/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Louisiana health authorities said a suspected Omicron case was one of 17 confirmed COVID-19 infections among the passengers and crew of a Norwegian Cruise Lines ship that returned to New Orleans Sunday.

Driving the news: The Norwegian Breakaway departed New Orleans on Nov. 28 with more than 3,200 people on board, before making stops in Belize, Honduras and Mexico, according to a Louisiana Department of Health statement.

Gov. Hochul will order some NY hospitals to halt elective surgeries

New York State Gov. Kathy Hochul COVID-19 addresses rising cases in the state and the new variant Omicron at a press conference in November. Photo: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced on Monday that some state hospitals will be ordered to halt certain elective surgeries in an effort to combat a recent COVID-19 surge, Hochul said at a press conference.

Why it matters: New York has struggled with hospital capacity throughout the pandemic and postponed nonessential procedures before.