As the omicron type of coronavirus spreads across South Africa, Dr. Unben Pillay looks after dozens of patients every day. But at the moment he has not sent anyone to the hospital.
That’s one reason why he, along with other doctors and medical experts, suspect that Omicron is causing milder cases of COVID-19 than the delta variant, even though it appears to be expanding faster.
“They can manage the disease at home,” Pillay said of her patients. Most of them recovered in between 10 and 14 days of isolation.”
He noted that this includes the elderly and others with pre-existing health problems that make them vulnerable to a more serious form of the disease in case of infection.
In the two weeks since Omicron first appeared in South Africa, other doctors have shared similar stories. Although they caution that it will take several weeks to gather enough data to be sure, their observations and early evidence provide some clues.
According to South Africa’s National Institute of Infectious Diseases:
Only about 30% of those hospitalized with the emerging coronavirus in recent weeks were seriously ill, and less than half of those during the first weeks of the preceding waves of the epidemic.
Average hospital stays for COVID-19 were shorter this time: about 2.8 days compared to 8 days earlier.
– Only 3% of recently hospitalized COVID-19 patients have died, compared to about 20% in previous outbreaks in the country.
“Right now, just about everything points to a milder disease,” said Willem Hanikum, director of the Africa Center for Health Research, citing NIHR figures and other reports. “It’s early and we have to get the definitive data. Oftentimes, hospitalizations and deaths happen later, and we’re only with that wave for two weeks.”
Meanwhile, scientists around the world are watching the number of cases and hospitalization rates as they run tests to see how effective current vaccines and treatments are. Although the delta variant remains the dominant strain of coronavirus worldwide, omicron is already present in dozens of countries, with South Africa as the epicenter.
Pillai practices in Gauteng Province, where Omicron is enforced. With a population of 16 million, it is the most populous region in the country and includes its largest cities, Johannesburg, and the capital, Pretoria. Gauteng recorded a 400% increase in new cases in the first week of December, and tests show the variant is responsible for more than 90% of them, according to health authorities.
According to the doctor, during the delta wave, his patients with COVID-19 had trouble breathing and low oxygen levels. Many required hospitalization within days.” He explained that today’s patients experience milder, flu-like symptoms, including body aches and coughs.
Pillai runs an association representing about 5,000 internists across the country, and her colleagues have documented similar observations about Omicron. Netcare, the largest private healthcare provider, has also reported less serious cases.
But the infection is increasing. South Africa confirmed 22,400 new infections on Thursday and another 19,000 on Friday, up from 200 a day a few weeks ago. Health Minister Jo Bhalla said on Friday that the new wave had infected 90,000 people in the past month.
“Micron has pushed the recovery,” he added, citing studies that say 70% of new cases in the country are consistent with that variable.
He added that the coronavirus reproduction rate in the current wave – which indicates the number of people an infected person can infect – is 2.5, the highest rate recorded in the country since the beginning of the epidemic.
“Because it is an infectious species, we are seeing unprecedented increases,” Wassila Jasat, who monitors hospital data for the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, said.
Gassat added that 86% of patients admitted in this latest outbreak were not vaccinated. And they are, on average, younger than previous waves: about two-thirds of them are under 40 years old.
According to Gassat, although early indications are that omicron cases are less serious, the scale of the infection could saturate South African hospitals and cause a greater number of serious symptoms and deaths.
“This is the danger that waves have always posed,” he said.
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