A note of caution on Omicron

My social media feeds are full of people rejoicing about the evidence that the Omicron variant, while much more infectious than previous variants of COVID-19, puts a significantly smaller proportion of those who contract it in hospital. The different studies which I have seen quoted suggest rather different ratios for how much lower the percentage rate of hospitalisation is,  but we do seem to be seeing a consistent pattern of evidence that it will be lower.

I do not for a moment criticise people for being pleased about this because it is extremely good news. I am anxious, however, that we do not become complacent about the threat which this variant still presents to the NHS and to the economy.

We are in a very different situation compared with this time last year; some of those differences are helpful, some are not.

On the positive side, the vast majority if British adults have now had at least two doses of an approved COVID-19 vaccine and over 31 million have also had the booster. This should significantly reduce both the number of cases and the number of people who become seriously ill and, sadly, die as a result of COVID. 

On the negative side, even before the Omicron variant was identified, the NHS was already under more pressure than it has ever been. There were three reasons for this. 

  1. The least important, thought it was not zero, was the people in hospital directly because of COVID. In North Cumbria there were eight people in this category, four in each of the two main hospitals.
  2. The second reason was the usual winter crop of increased complaints
  3. The third and far and away the largest, was a huge bow-wave of legacy non-covid conditions from earlier in the pandemic: patients with issues which would normally have been picked up and treated in 2020 or earlier in 2021 who did not get treated earlier because of the pandemic but are presenting now. Many of these have waited far too long already and now need to be dealt with urgently.

The good news is that, because of the vaccination programme and because a lower proportion of patients with this variant need hospitalisation, Omicron will put far fewer people in hospital this winter than the Delta variant did last year.

The bad news is that because of the position the NHS is already in, Omicron does not have to put anything like as many people in hospital as Delta did to be a huge challenge to the NHS in January and February.

So we all need to keep up our guard: be very careful to minimise the sorts of social contact which might spread COVID and make sure we keep up to date with our jabs (Flu as well as COVID). 

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