Omicron: Some reason for long-term optimism—but also short-term concern

The new variant’s lower rate of serious illness is a cause for hope, but its rapid spread still could threaten the capacity of our health care system

By Tyler Olsen | December 17, 2021 |11:59 am

NEW: BC has implemented a range of new restrictions that will take effect Monday. For a concise run-down, check out this story in our sister-publication, the Burnaby Beacon.

There are reasons for long-term optimism about the latest COVID variant and its rapid spread across the globe. There are also reasons for significant caution and concern about the weeks to come..

When it comes to Omicron: Those two feelings are anything but mutually exclusive or contradictory.

The challenge is that Omicron’s risk to individuals is different from its risk to entire communities. So if most people carry on as normal, there may be substantial community-wide danger, even if the health care outcomes for individual people who contract COVID might be less serious.

What we know about Omicron thus far is that it spreads extremely rapidly, in part because its incubation period—the time between when one acquires the virus and when one is contagious —is much shorter. Previous variants had incubation periods of between four and seven days, usually. With Omicron, early research suggests that time gap could be as low as short as a single day.

At the same time, early indications are that Omicron may be less likely to cause serious illness than previous variants, which would be undeniably good news. The science is still not certain, and today’s thinking could be affected by those populations the variant has thus far spread through (South Africa’s previous experiences with COVID could have boosted the ability of immune systems to fight off the new variant there). But if it holds, Omicron could signal a new, less serious stage for COVID where the virus becomes something more akin to a serious seasonal flu that the world learns to live with—the eventual outcome experts predicted 22 months ago.

The challenge, though, is that Omicron is spreading so quickly that it could lead to clogged hospitals even if it causes serious illness more rarely. In the United States, hospitalizations have increased by 20% in just two weeks. Officials in Denmark have reversed course over the past week and brought in a series of new restrictions.

From the start of the pandemic, the central goal of restrictions has been to to prevent health care systems from being overwhelmed by COVID patients. When hospitals did exceed their capacity in places around the globe, large numbers of deaths have followed—and not just in patients with COVID but others who need treatment.

So even if one assumes that most may eventually contract the Omicron variant—a possibility that is still far from a foregone conclusion—it is in the public interest (and those without COVID who need access to our hospitals) that those people don’t all contract the virus at the same time. Although hospitalization rates are much lower for Omicron, officials have warned that the variant still does render some proportion of people critically ill. So if huge numbers of people get sick at the same time, the number of people in hospital could rise significantly. There will also be issues if and when large numbers of doctors and other health care workers cannot continue to come into work.

The challenge, at the moment, is that the virus has spread so fast that there is still relatively limited information available on just how much of a strain it could inflict on already stressed health care systems, especially if communities don’t take steps to at least slow Omicron’s spread.

While Omicron appears more resistant to two vaccine doses than Delta, early studies suggest vaccines do reduce the symptoms once a person does acquire it. They also suggest a third shot can provide a significant boost to one’s chance of avoiding the virus in the first place.

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Fraser Valley restrictions

We reminded you last week that most of the Fraser Valley is still under special COVID restrictions that were instituted at the end of September.

At that time, COVID-19 case rates were nearly three times higher in Fraser East (Abbotsford, Mission, Chilliwack, Agassiz-Harrison, and Hope) than anywhere else in the Fraser Health Authority. Those communities also had the lowest first dose immunization rates in Fraser Health.

Since that order was put in place (you can find details on what it still means for you here), case rates have dropped in Fraser East to their lowest point since late July. As of Dec. 14, the case rate in Fraser East was lower than the rest of Fraser Health.

The Current asked Fraser Health what it would take for the regional restrictions to be removed. The short answer: vaccines.

“Fraser Health looks at a variety of factors when assessing our public health measures,” a Fraser Health spokesperson said in an email. “In addition to monitoring cases, hospitalizations and vaccination rates regionally, we also take into consideration situational factors including who may be at risk and how COVID-19 is being transmitted within the community.”

Abbotsford, Mission, Agassiz-Harrison, and Hope all have first dose vaccination rates between 79% and 89% for people aged 12 and older. Although this is significantly better than it was in the fall, it is lower than the rest of Fraser Health, which ranges between 89% and 96%. The range is roughly the same for second doses, although a few percentage points lower.

Fraser Health did not specify what percentage of the population needed to be vaccinated before regional restrictions might be lifted. However, with the rapid spread of Omicron restrictions are likely to get stricter, before they ease. Dr. Bonnie Henry will update the media at 1pm Friday alongside Health Minister Adrian Dix.

– with files from Grace Kennedy

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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