Even as the world panics over the rapid spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19, the health ministry in South Africa has delivered some encouraging news. On Friday, South Africa’s Minister of Health Joe Phaahla said that hospitalizations are down with Omicron cases compared to previous waves like the deadly Delta surge, and that people in the hospital rarely need oxygen and are less likely to die from the disease.
Phaahla told reporters that the country’s hospital admission rate of COVID-19 patients “fell 90 percent in the second week of the current infection wave driven by the Omicron variant” as compared to the second week of the Delta wave. Boiling down the good-for-a-global-pandemic news further, he said that only 1.7 percent of all Omicron cases are being hospitalized, compared to 19 percent of Delta cases earlier in the year.
Since the variant was first identified in South Africa just three weeks ago, it has already peaked in South Africa’s Gauteng province, according to national statistics, with hospitalizations falling sharply. He added that many milder cases were in the hospital because there was space, unlike in other waves when doctors had to choose who lived or died based on occupancy rates.
“We have seen a decrease in a proportion of people who need to be on oxygen. They are at very low levels,” said Waasila Jassat, a researcher at South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases told Bloomberg. “For the first time there are more non-severe than severe patients in hospital.”
That’s encouraging news if it holds good, keeping in mind it is summer in the southern hemisphere and if anything is known about this pandemic so far, it is that winter weather makes things worse—and that nothing can be taken for granted on this horrific pandemic roller coaster. Australia, also enjoying warmer weather, is reporting a new surge in cases likely tied to Omicron, though fewer hospitalizations than in previous waves.
World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus admitted that Omicron is likely “in most countries, even if it hasn’t been detected yet” and that it is “spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant.”
While applauding news that disease does seem milder, he cautioned against discounting the super mutated variant entirely. “We’re concerned that people are dismissing Omicron as mild. Surely, we have learned by now that we underestimate this virus at our peril,” he said earlier in the week. “The sheer number of cases could once again overwhelm unprepared health systems.”
Even if that is not the case in South Africa, it could soon be the case in the U.K. where the number of Omicron cases has risen exponentially, causing many countries, including France, to ban travelers from the U.K. for all but “essential” purposes. Elsewhere in Europe, countries are still battling the Delta variant which remains dominant in the hardest hit countries like Germany and Belgium. New Omicron cases continue to be identified across southern Europe, but hospitalizations—so far—are far lower than a year ago when most countries were bracing for some sort of holiday lockdown a week before Christmas.
Each country fights the virus differently based on medical capabilities, population demographics and national attitude. In Italy, masks have been mandated indoors since March 2020 while in the U.S., which is also seeing a surge in Omicron cases on the East Coast, masks have never been widely mandated.
In South Africa, which has a relatively low vaccination rate, the population is younger than in many other countries, and nearly 80 percent of the population has already had some variant of COVID-19 since the pandemic began, the health ministry said Friday. This could offer natural immunity against serious disease that may not apply to other populations.
Still, as the Omicron wave peaks where it is thought to have originated, hospitalizations are at 40 percent of the level they were at a similar stage of previous waves, which may encourage countries bracing for the inevitable as the latest wave of this ongoing nightmare circles the globe.