News / Covid-19
Is Omicron mostly harmless or is the worst yet to come? That is the question nobody seems to be able answer right now.
But the flip-flopping by the department of health on its proposed track and trace and isolation rules may hint at what is ahead for South Africa.
The infection rate on both sides of the Atlantic continues to surge, hitting its highest levels since last March, last week. Now countries are in various permutations of lockdown in Europe and the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned of potential strain on healthcare systems and its potential severity.
The department of health last week ended all contact tracing and shortened isolation periods to eight days for mild cases and 10 days for severe ones. This was retracted on Tuesday, when the department issued a statement reverting to previous regulations.
These include a 14-day isolation period for contact-traced and infected parties. The department justified its decision to amend the protocols but said that opposition from the public and other stakeholders made it reconsider.
Department spokesperson Foster Mohale said: “We have listened to the people who shared their valuable comments and inputs that couldn’t be ignored. We are considering all additional comments, too.”
Mike van Wyk, chief executive of Medicare24, vociferously opposed the amendments to coronavirus protocols last week. He said the decision to revert to the “old” protocols was the responsible thing to do.
“Despite the arguments put forward for the changes, the message to the public would have encouraged a more lackadaisical approach to personal and community wellness – and that is not okay.”
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He expected a second spike in infections once the festive season is over. As the world’s infection rate continues to surge, the picture in SA looks quite different. The seven-day infection rate average has plummeted from a peak of about 23 000 new infections in the middle of December, to less than half that by Tuesday, at 7 216 reported cases.
At the same time the rest of the world reported 1.3 million new cases. Death rates have also stabilised with an average daily death toll of between 64 and 52 people daily over the past fortnight.
Prior to omicron there was a marked lull in both infections and deaths in parallel with the declining spread of the delta variant. At its peak in SA, delta killed 806 people mid-January, compared to omicron’s peak of 105 people on 20 December.
Mohale said: “Omicron is not as bad as other variants at the moment, hence we have had a festive season without hard lockdown.”
But Van Wyk warned: “Presently, statistics indicate that nine out of 10 hospitalisations with omicron are unvaccinated patients.”
He added that by Christmas only 26.6% of South Africans were fully vaccinated and 31.8% of the population had had an initial jab.
“This could mean,” he cautioned, “that with the variant’s rapid spread it could penetrate communities that the previous mutations didn’t, and that places 75% of the population at risk, right now.”
Mohale said that unvaccinated people were more at risk of being hospitalised should they contract omicron.
According to the Reuters Covid tracker, 5.7 million people worldwide have died, but global death rates related to omicron are at a new low with statistics showing an average daily death rate of 4 588 at Christmas, compared to 17 088 on 28 January this year.
Omicron is now present in 77 countries.
This week WHO director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said: “Omicron is spreading at a rate we have not seen with any previous variant.
“Even if omicron does cause less severe disease, the sheer number of cases could overwhelm unprepared health systems.
“Vaccines alone will not get any country out of this crisis.
“Countries have to prevent the spread of omicron with measures that work today.”