Omicron’s rapid spread across the UK has resulted in public health officials and ministers warning that the country will experience 1 million infections a day by the end of the month without further action. The consequences of Omicron’s “tsunami” are far from clear, but a picture is emerging.
What is happening to the NHS?
This is the most important question. The answer depends on what proportion of the infections become hospital stays and how long the patients are admitted. Last winter’s wave was powered by the alpha variant, and before the vaccines were launched, about 22% of cases in the age group over 65 were hospitalized. The vaccination program lowered this rate to 6%. Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said his worst-case scenario for Omicron was a return to those pre-vaccination hospital stay rates. More optimistically, he said one booster might offer better protection against severe omicron than two doses against severe delta.
When do we know more?
The United Kingdom Health The safety agency expects to have reliable data on the severity of Omicron and the effectiveness of hospitalized vaccines by the week between Christmas and New Years, or more likely the first week of January.
Given the high number of previous Covid infections and vaccinations in the UK, most cases of Omicron are expected to be mild: even if antibodies fail to block the infection, T cells are expected to do pretty well against serious diseases. But according to Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, 1 million infections a day would still be those NHS under considerable stress. This is because the hospital stays would not take place at intervals, but all at once. “A million infections a day means a lot of hospital admissions, even if we get far fewer hospital admissions per case than in the past,” he said.
What about other effects?
The problem for the NHS is that the wave of hospitalizations coincides with infection and illness in the staff, overwhelming the already overwhelmed health service. The same wave of infection and disease will affect the entire economy when people lose their jobs to isolate, recover, or take care of others. This could affect traffic such as bus services and supply chains with further consequences. “The risk is that all of these things come together,” said Hunter.
Will testing continue?
The UK can run around 800,000 PCR tests a day, although capacity is increasing and decreasing. Usually fewer than half of those infected get a test, but with Omicron spreading so quickly, the daily case numbers could quickly become unreliable. Alan McNally, a professor of microbial genomics at the University of Birmingham who helped set up the Milton Keynes Lighthouse Lab, said PCR testing was already pointless with the Omicron epidemic. “At the current doubling rate, Omicron will infect 1 million people a day by New Year’s Day. PCR testing is a completely pointless exercise, ”he said. “The outbreak doubles faster than you get a PCR result. It’s a useless tool now. “
Is Omicron getting slower?
Yes. While the Omicron epidemic is currently doubling at a staggering rate – every two days – the rapid surge in infections will slow as immunity to Omicron infections and vaccinations builds in the population and people reduce contact with others, masks put on and take other precautions, such as regular tests. Whether that’s enough to keep daily hospital stays below last winter’s high – and flatten the curve – is unknown. “If we can make it through without the collapse of civilization, we’ll be better off in the future,” said Hunter.