Omicron is the most contagious COVID-19 variant so far and has spread like wildfire in South Africa. Governments everywhere have been preparing for the worst-case scenario, and their preparations are about to be tested. Omicron has not only arrived in the United States but appears to be wiping out the competing strains.
After COVID-19 was infected by a common cold virus and appropriated some of its DNA in Africa around the middle of November, the new variant, Omicron, became the most virulent version to date – but also the mildest. The virus doubled every two or three days, and it appears that it peaked in South Africa on December 12 with 37,875 cases. Thus, Omicron went from zero to endemic in less than a month. The wave will be over in South Africa by the end of December with its current trajectory.
Based on data from previous waves, the death rate has also probably peaked as of December 22, clocking in at less than 10% of the Delta wave deaths. Hospitalization peaked in the same period, and as we reported earlier, most hospital cases were not admitted for COVID-19 but were discovered in the hospital after routine tests. More than 90% of hospitalized people do not need oxygen supplements, and even fewer need intensive care.
The Omicron variant is increasingly comparable to the seasonal flu, which is excellent news for the world. Currently, more than 99% of all COVID-19 cases in South Africa are Omicron, which means that it has out-competed and nearly eradicated the other strains.
The fact that new cases are falling despite minimal efforts to curb the spread strongly implies that South Africa has reached herd immunity. Herd immunity does not mean that everyone is immune or that there will be no new cases; it only means that the R-number is less than or equal to one. That means that every infected person, on average, infects less than one person. The spread of the disease will, therefore, be dampened.
The United States
As late as November 27, there were no recorded cases of Omicron in the United States. Less than a month later, the variant makes up 75% of the new infections and is on track to eradicate its more deadly cousins. Hospitalization remains higher in the U.S. than in other countries, but these seem to be the lingering effects of the Delta variant.
According to the CDC, there has been a slight decrease in the hospitals in the last few days, the first signs of Omicron displacement, confirming that it is milder and causes less severe illness. The implication is that America has reached peak hospitalization and the crisis, in practice, is over.
However, this may not be true for individual states. There is significant regional variation both in caseload and illness, and some states or cities may, therefore, still experience an increase in hospitalization.
Overall, the news is excellent. All data indicates that the U.S. will mirror South Africa. If so, the pandemic will peak around Christmas and will be over by the end of January 2022.
~ Read more from Caroline Adana.