As opposed to last year's holiday season, there is a mix of good and bad news with this Omicron surge, even though the virus seems to be spreading at a very fast clip. A new study suggests the variant presents much lower hospitalization risk than Delta, and the FDA has just approved the first of two promising antiviral treatments that should cut down on mortality in the pandemic overall.
Daily new COVID cases are way up in San Francisco and appear to be rising in most Bay Area counties as we approach Christmas weekend, but it remains to be seen whether hospitals will be impacted as they have been in earlier surges. Experts have said that vaccines provide good protection from hospitalization, and boosters provide good protection against infection overall, as well as excellent protection against severe illness.
Still, in highly vaccinated San Francisco, the seven-day average of daily new cases is up to 187, and the city recorded 287 new cases on the last day for which data is available, which was December 17. That is up from a seven-day average of 46 cases per day on December 1 — and the average had been hovering around 50-70 new cases per day for the last two months.
Governor Gavin Newsom said Wednesday that we should assume that about half of all COVID cases in the state are now Omicron — in New York City earlier this week experts estimated it represented 90% of cases. As the Chronicle reports, one lab in the Bay Area has already said that 71% of samples it is testing are Omicron.
One expert, Dr. Claudia Hoyen, a pediatric infectious disease specialist based in Ohio, made headlines on Tuesday when she bluntly called Omicron the second-most infectious disease on the planet right now after measles.
"The most contagious virus we think of is measles, that has a factor of about 18," Hoyen said, referring to the transmission factor associated with a single case of measles. Experts are saying that Omicron may have a factor of 15, which may or may not turn out to be close to the variant's confirmed factor.
Still, incidents like the holiday party in Larkspur two weekends ago, in which 28 people — about half of those in attendance — became COVID positive despite everyone being vaccinated, suggest that Omicron is as contagious as everyone has been warning.
Two new studies, one out of South Africa, suggest that hospitalizations are far less common with Omicron infections. The South African study is based on a larger data set than is available anywhere else as yet, and it suggests that Omicron presents an 80% lower risk of hospitalization than the Delta variant. But, as Bloomberg reports, the study authors concede that they were comparing to Delta data from March and April, when fewer people had been vaccinated or previously infected, and therefore immunity was lower at that time. The other study, out of the UK, suggests a 40% to 45% lower risk of requiring an overnight hospital stay.
This is hopefully what we see playing out in the Bay Area, as case counts began rising two weeks ago, however hospitalizations have not risen significantly this week, as they would be expected to do two weeks after the start of a surge. It still may be too soon to say, however. The same number of COVID patients were in Bay Area hospitals on Tuesday — 417 — as were in hospitals the first week of November.
In other positive news, the FDA has approved Pfizer's pill-based COVID treatment, and is expected to approve Merck's COVID pill as well. Both treatments have been shown to greatly reduce the risk of severe illness in at-risk patients if administered within three days of symptom onset. The Pfizer treatment is approved for high-risk patients aged 12 and older.
Also, experts are warning that with the high transmissibility of Omicron, your thin cloth masks and disposable surgical masks are not going to cut it to reduce transmission. It's time to go back to N95s and KN95s in crowded situations and public places.
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