By David M. Greenwald
It is true that research has found Omicron to be a less severe variant than Delta and others. But for people who are not vaccinated and boosted and those with risk factors, it is still a serious disease. One problem is that hospitalization and deaths are lagging indicators—which means that we might not know how hot the water is until it’s too late.
Dr. Fauci last week noted that, while cases have spiked to over 700,000 new cases per day—nearly triple the former peak a year ago, it was “much more relevant to focus on the hospitalizations,” which lag behind cases.
Hospitalization has soared in California with more than 11,000 people hospitalized in California with COVID, more than double what it was a month ago.
On Monday, Governor Newsom said that “hospitalizations are projected to increase to 23,000 COVID-19 patients by Feb. 2, surpassing the current record of 21,938 hospitalizations set during January 2021.”
Notice that will be a lower hospitalization rate than a year ago, but because of the sheer volume of cases, the law of large numbers takes over. Moreover, a year ago, very few people were vaccinated, and the biggest surge of new infections and hospitalizations are among the unvaccinated.
Nationwide, “The number of Americans hospitalized with Covid-19 has surpassed last winter’s peak.”
The New York Times reports, “As of Sunday, 142,388 people with the virus were hospitalized nationwide, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, surpassing the peak of 142,315 reported on Jan. 14 of last year. The seven-day average of daily hospitalizations was 132,086, an increase of 83 percent from two weeks ago.
“As cases soared over the past few weeks to an average of over 737,000 per day, far higher than last winter’s peak, public health officials have argued that caseloads were of limited significance because Omicron is less virulent than Delta and other variants, and that vaccines, and especially boosters, offered protection against severe illness,” the Times notes.
But, “the surge’s sheer volume has overwhelmed hospitals across the country. And outside cities like New York, where Omicron hit early and has pushed hospitals to the brink, it is unlikely to have peaked.”
Last week, the WHO (World Health Organization) director warned that, despite Omicron seeming to be less severe than Delta, it was a mistake to call the variant “mild.”
“While Omicron does appear to be less severe compared to Delta, especially in those vaccinated, it does not mean it should be categorized as ‘mild,'” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press conference. “Just like previous variants, Omicron is hospitalizing people, and it is killing people.”
Some have suggested that Omicron is a sign that COVID is going from pandemic to endemic.
But experts warn against that view. Professor Christina Pagel, the UCL (University College London) Director, in a tweet last week warned, “A virus isn’t endemic just cos a govt minister says it is and just cos people want it to be. The current pattern of waning vax, new immune evasive variants, and minimal public health response seem set to doom us to massive surges once or twice a year.”
She added, “If that continues we’ll keep picking off the vulnerable, keep stressing a weakening NHS, create more chronic illness & mass disruption through people off sick every time. Lower quality of life for all of us.”
She also noted that we have spent 150 years “trying (mostly successfully) to suppress disease. In Europe, we have massively reduced or eliminated cholera, scarlet fever, measles, TB, polio, smallpox, whooping cough, typhoid, mumps, rubella. We’ve also *greatly* reduced flu in last 25 years.”
Vaccination is still the key. If you look at the data analysis from the NY Times you see that the average daily cases in New York City and Seattle are rising for both vaccinated and not fully vaccinated alike—though much faster for the latter group.
Writes the Times, “They’re rising because vaccination often does not prevent infection from the Omicron variant. It reduces the chances substantially — as you can see above — but vaccinated people still face a meaningful chance of infection.”
But there is also a second level here.
As the Times points out: “What vaccination does is radically reduce the chance of severe Covid illness.”
The charts show a rapid rise among the not fully vaccinated in the hospitalization rate, and almost no increase at all among the vaccinated.
“Some experts believe that the hospitalization gap between the vaccinated and unvaccinated is even larger than these charts suggest,” and they note—for one thing about one-third of Covid hospitalizations fall into the incidental category—most of those are vaccinated.
Omicron illustrates the problem with taking a hands-off approach. Allowing the disease to go unchecked means more mutations, more variants, and the potential for more disruptions like we’ve seen over the last few weeks.