Omicron might be milder, but is poised to overwhelm hospitals

Omicron could quickly overwhelm hospitals.
Omicron could quickly overwhelm hospitals.
Image: REUTERS/Yves Herman
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The full force of the Omicron variant of covid-19 blew ashore this week in places like New York City which reported 21,000 new cases causing interruptions and shutdowns at schools, sporting events, and the television show Saturday Night Live.

While the outbreak induced flashbacks to March 2020, there are positive signs from South Africa where the virus was first identified. Omicron appears to be a milder strain than the Delta variant, the dominant strain around the world. In parts of South Africa, according to the country’s public health authority, cases have risen rapidly but already started to decline. So far there have been fewer hospitalizations, ICU patients, and ventilators used in the country than with Delta. Although it’s still too early to know if the virus itself is less dangerous, or whether the demographics of the pandemic have changed, it’s a hopeful sign amid a resurgence of the virus.

But that may not be enough to avoid some of the worst days of the pandemic, especially for the unvaccinated, who lack protection against the deadliest effects of the virus, and hospitals treating waves of new patients. The Omicron strain appears to be far more contagious, even for the vaccinated, thanks to mutations that allow it to escape some protections afforded by vaccines.

That’s already overwhelming overstrained hospitals in states like Ohio where 14,000 people have died from covid 19, about 95%  of them unvaccinated. Ohio governor Mike DeWine recently sent more than 1,000 national guard troops to help healthcare workers at hospitals expected to fill with covid-19 patients this holiday season.

ICUs back to the breaking point

Intensive care unit (ICU) beds nationwide are currently operating at 79% capacity, the highest rate since September 2021. In some states where Omicron has already been detected, like Texas, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire, hospitals are operating with more than 90% of ICU beds filled. As the Omicron wave builds, those numbers are set to rise at hospitals stretched thin by a shortage of workers. Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals are 22 months into a pandemic that has yet to abate. A staggering one in five healthcare workers have left medicine since the start of the pandemic. “The level of care that we’ve come to expect in our hospitals no longer exists,” virologist John Lowe told The Atlantic

Despite the widespread availability of vaccines for most of 2021, the US remains extremely vulnerable to Omicron: only 61% of eligible Americans are “fully vaccinated,” meaning that they have received two shots of Moderna or Pfizer’s vaccines, or one Johnson & Johnson shot. But data show that six months after a person’s second dose, immune protection against mild cases of disease decreases from 90% to 70% (protection against severe infections and death is much higher).

The arrival of Omicron means people need a booster shot, or third supplementary shot (or second in the case of the J&J vaccine), to achieve comparable levels of immunity against the new variant. A booster offers similar levels of protection against Omicron as the first two shots did against Delta.  So far, only 18% of Americans have received a “booster” shot, which has proven effective in reducing infection and severe symptoms of the coronavirus.

This wave of the pandemic may crest much faster because of Omicron’s explosive speed of transmission: each person infected with the Omicron variant is spreading it to at least 3 others, according to early data from South Africa, roughly double the rate of the Delta variant earlier this year. As families gather over the holidays, the country is expected to face overwhelmed hospitals, more deaths from covid, and a very good chance that individuals won’t receive the care they need because the system, and health care workers, are simply overwhelmed.