And the world seems to be quickly following, with Omicron already surpassing the Delta variant as the dominant coronavirus strain in some countries. In the US, Omicron accounted for 73 per cent of new infections last week, health officials said — and the variant is responsible for an estimated 90 per cent or more of new infections in the New York area, the Southeast, the industrial Midwest and the Pacific Northwest.
Confirmed coronavirus cases in the US have surged by 60 per cent in a week as Omicron overtook Delta as the dominant variant there. Worldwide, the variant has been detected in at least 89 countries, according to the World Health Organisation.
In South Africa, experts worried that the sheer volume of new infections would overwhelm the country’s hospitals, even though Omicron appears to cause milder disease, with significantly fewer hospitalisations, patients needing oxygen and deaths.
But then cases in Gauteng started falling. After reaching 16,000 new infections on December 12, the province’s numbers have steadily dropped, to just over 3300 cases on Tuesday.
“It’s significant. It’s very significant,” Dr Fareed Abdullah said of the decrease.
“The rapid rise of new cases has been followed by a rapid fall and it appears we’re seeing the beginning of the decline of this wave,” said Abdullah, working in the COVID-19 ward at Pretoria’s Steve Biko Academic Hospital.
In another sign the surge may be receding, a study of healthcare professionals who tested positive for COVID-19 at Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital in Soweto shows a rapid increase and then a quick decline in cases.
“Two weeks ago we were seeing more than 20 new cases per day and now it is about five or six cases per day,” Nunes said.
But, she said, it was still very early and there were several factors that must be closely watched.
South Africa’s positivity rate has remained high at 29 per cent, up from just 2 per cent in early November, indicating the virus is still circulating among the population at relatively high levels, she said.
And the country’s holiday season is now underway, when many businesses close down for a month and people travel to visit family, often in rural areas. This could accelerate Omicron’s spread across the nation and to neighbouring countries, experts said.
“In terms of the massive everyday doubling that we were seeing just over a week ago with huge numbers, that seems to have settled,” said Professor Veronica Uekermann, head of the COVID-19 response team at Steve Biko Academic Hospital.
“But it is way too early to suggest that we have passed the peak. There are too many external factors, including the movement during the holiday season and the general behaviour during this period,” she said, noting that infections spiked last year after the holiday break.
It’s summer in South Africa and many gatherings are outdoors, which may make a difference between the Omicron-driven wave here and the surges in Europe and North America, where people would gather indoors.
Another unknown factor is how much Omicron has spread among South Africans without causing disease.
Some health officials in New York have suggested that because South Africa appears to have experienced a quick, mild wave of Omicron, the variant may behave similarly there and elsewhere in the US. But Nunes cautions against jumping to those conclusions.
“Each setting, each country is different. The populations are different. The demographics of the population, the immunity is different in different countries,” she said. South Africa’s population, with an average age of 27, is more youthful than many Western countries, for instance.
Most of the patients currently being treated for COVID-19 in hospitals are unvaccinated, Uekermann emphasised. About 40 per cent of adult South Africans have been inoculated with two doses.
“All my patients in ICU are unvaccinated,” Uekermann said. “So our vaccinated people are doing better in this wave, for sure. We have got some patients who are very ill with severe COVID, and these are unvaccinated patients.”
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