Dec 18, 2021 - Health

The UK's Omicron warning for America

COVID-19 cases in London
Data: UK Health Security Agency; Chart: Axios Visuals

Coronavirus cases are surging in London as the Omicron variant has officially replaced Delta — a sign of what's likely just around the corner for parts of the U.S.

The bottom line: The ratio of deaths to cases will be lower than spring 2020, simply because so many Americans are either vaccinated or have already been infected. But it's still unclear if the variant itself is less severe, and how many people are vulnerable to it.

Driving the news: South Africa and the UK are regularly releasing data that help predict what the coming days and weeks will bring the U.S.

  • Both places have made it clear that the virus spreads at a faster rate than we've seen during the pandemic, and it's able to escape at least some of the immunity provided by vaccines or previous infections.
  • But it's still unclear whether Omicron is more or less likely to cause severe disease than other variants, at least partially because so many people in South Africa or the UK have some form of immunity against the virus.

Where it stands: New South African data shows that deaths across all age groups among hospitalized patients were two-thirds lower in the Omicron wave than in previous waves.

  • Most hospitalizations in South Africa were among the unvaccinated, but more than 70% of the population in regions hit hardest by the variant has already had COVID. In addition, roughly 30% of the country's population has had at least one dose of the vaccine.
  • Although Omicron is much more likely to lead to reinfections than other variants, experts expect that people who have recovered from the virus still have greater protection against severe disease than those who haven't been infected.
  • But according to the UK Health Security Agency, there's insufficient data on the question of severity. “There is no signal that supports a difference in the intrinsic virulence of the Omicron virus compared to Delta," according to the updated risk assessment.

Between the lines: That means if you're unvaccinated and haven't been infected, you're definitely not in the clear with Omicron.

  • It also suggests that vulnerable people who haven't had booster shots or have been previously infected and not vaccinated are also at risk of severe cases.

What we're watching: At least some parts of the country are already in the beginning phases of what these other parts of the world already went through.

  • New York and D.C. both reported record case numbers yesterday, and there's no reason to think they've peaked yet.
  • “We’ve almost caught up with London, and today and yesterday were so high that probably we’re already there," New York City Councilmember Mark Levine told Axios. "Omicron spread earlier there, but that means we may see even higher case numbers."
  • "There’s just no doubt that we’re headed for probably a tough six weeks ahead," he added.
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