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COVID-19As omicron variant of COVID-19 spreads, experts watch case & hospitalization numbers

As omicron variant of COVID-19 spreads, experts watch case & hospitalization numbers

As omicron, the newest COVID-19 variant, spreads throughout the world, viral rates are spiking in Santa Clara County, where 1,785 new COVID cases were logged yesterday, December 28, and the 7-day rolling average of new cases stands at 649. Two months ago, on October 28, before the highly transmissible omicron was discovered by South African scientists, the 7-day rolling average of new COVID cases was 141. 

To date, Milpitas has logged 4,794 COVID cases. With a population of 77,457 people, that means roughly 1 in 16 city residents, or 6.25% of us, have now had COVID (likely an underestimate due to people who are asymptomatic, don’t get tested, or strictly use at-home tests that go unreported). Santa Clara County does not provide per-city death data, but to date 1,940 county COVID patients have died. That’s from a county case total of 160,884, meaning in our county of 1.928 million people, about 8.3% of the population has tested positive for COVID-19, and 0.10% have died from the disease.

The above presumes not only the accuracy of the numbers, but the rarity of reinfection (meaning the vast majority of measured cases pertained to 1 person at 1 time). This in mind, we can estimate that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, COVID has killed roughly 1 in every 993 Santa Clara County residents. 

Of late, new cases and deaths have been highly concentrated among the unvaccinated. Our county boasts high vaccination rates, with 81.3% of residents of all ages fully vaxxed and 52% of eligible residents now boosted. New cases have been cropping up to the tune of 91.2 per 100,000 county residents among the unvaxxed and 6.6 per 100,000 county residents among the vaxxed (the county average is 9.7 cases per 100,000 people). 

Meanwhile, with omicron in circulation, COVID case counts are expected to keep rising. For a sense of what’s to come in the U.S., experts are looking to case counts and more so hospitalization counts overseas…

In England, where 117,000 new infections were logged on Tuesday, 9,500 people were hospitalized with COVID. Last January, before vaccines started being rolled out, the hospitalization number there climbed over 34,000. Meanwhile, in France, which logged a record-high 180,000 new cases on Tuesday, only 3,400 people were in ICUs, less than half of the 7,000 seen there in the spring. 

Accordingly, there’s reason for cautious optimism that despite omicron’s high rate of spread, the variant puts far fewer people in the hospital than did earlier strains. Moreover, there’s data supporting the idea that omicron drops like it spikes — which is to say, quickly…

In South Africa, where omicron was discovered over the Thanksgiving holiday, hospital admissions in Guateng were down by over 20% during the 2 weeks leading up to Christmas as compared to the 2 weeks prior. Other provinces reported similar declines. 

The data is still lagging here in the U.S.; omicron began to spread in other countries earlier. But as of Monday, 5,000 Ohio residents were hospitalized with COVID-19, and what is clear is that over 90% of them had not been vaccinated.

Meanwhile, today White House medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci pointed to an increasing data pool indicating that omicron will not cause as much severe disease as earlier strains: “The spike in cases is out of proportion to the increase in hospitalization. So if one looks at 14-day averages, the data, as of last night, indicate a plus-126% increase in cases and an 11% increase in hospitalizations.”

Fauci did however add a caveat: “We must remember that hospitalizations and deaths are lagging indicators. However, that pattern in the disparity between cases and hospitalizations strongly suggests that there will be a lower hospitalization-to-case ratio when the situation becomes more clear.”

On the same note, although Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) numbers from Monday showed a massive spike in U.S. COVID cases, totaling 450,000, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky noted that for the past week, hospitalizations and deaths stemming from COVID-19 have remained stable. 

Back in England, according to regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford and the U.K. government’s life sciences advisor John Bell, although cases and hospital admissions are now in a state of surge, vaccinated people scarcely have to be treated in ICUs. Said Bell, “The incidence of severe disease and death from this disease has basically not changed since we all got vaccinated and that’s really important to remember. The horrific scenes that we saw a year ago — intensive care units being full, lots of people dying prematurely — that is now history in my view and I think we should be reassured that that’s likely to continue.”

As for omicron? Bell said it “does appear to be less severe, and many people spend a relatively short time in hospital. They don’t need high-flow oxygen, average length of stay is apparently 3 days; this is not the same disease as we were seeing a year ago.”

Still, health experts remain vigilant. In Santa Clara County yesterday, workers in higher-risk occupations and settings including health care, jails, and shelters were advised of an order to have their vaccinations up-to-date (including booster shots) no later than January 24. County Public Health Officer Dr. Sara Cody said that county case rates have tripled in recent weeks, and the majority of new COVID cases being recorded here are the omicron variant. 

The message: get vaxxed, get boosted, and keep on wearing a mask indoors.

 

This article has been updated. 

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Eric Shapiro
Eric Shapiro is a writer and filmmaker. He has won awards for journalism (CA Journalism Award) and screenwriting (Fade In Award), and has served as a ghostwriter, speechwriter, or script doctor for over 3,000 clients. His first novel is a dark political thriller called "Red Dennis" (2020). His first nonfiction book is a guide for helping writers be more productive called "Ass Plus Seat" (2020). He co-hosts the "House of Mystery Radio Show" on NBC News Radio. Eric's books can be purchased here.

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