The Omicron wave in South Africa is now winding down, and a true picture of the impact of this variant disease can be assessed.
Overall, in South Africa cases peaked at about 117% higher than the Delta peak, but hospitalizations were only 63% of the Delta peak. Encouragingly, deaths peaked at only 20% of the Delta peak suggesting that the virus is less lethal or that prior infection waves or vaccines may have limited deaths.
Importantly, in Gauteng province, where the variant was first discovered, the wave is complete. When compared to Delta, Omicron was responsible for 90% of infections, but only 10% of deaths. Again, the data looks very encouraging as infections are almost back to baseline.
Importantly, the excess deaths due to the Omicron outbreak of COVID-19 are resolved. Total numbers of deaths observed in the province were much less than those seen in prior COVID surges, despite the number of infections.
In the U.S. similar patterns are emerging with initial observations of much milder disease from Omicron infection. There has been explosive growth in infections with current numbers almost three times the prior peak from last winter.
Despite this, deaths have barely budged, rising only 11% in the last two weeks. Hospitalizations are up 50% from pre-surge levels, and while this is straining health care resources, it would have been a total disaster if it were a Delta variant like surge.
Given these data, it is likely that U.S. Omicron cases will fall as quickly as they have risen and will result in proportionally fewer hospitalizations and deaths. All of this is good news, as we can hope for a quick end to this.
The one caveat is that we have a much larger population than South Africa, and a large population of people that have neither been vaccinated nor infected. This population could lead to a prolongation of Omicron infections here and result in more deaths in these at risk individuals (since death is the trailing indicator).
So, while this is all encouraging news we shouldn’t start celebrating yet….