Alan Frischer, MD, MPH
Here we go again. Just as the COVID pandemic numbers were looking manageable and our country was beginning to reopen, along comes Omicron. What does this mean? Just how bad is it?
I must mention that just last Saturday, my wife and I planned to take my mother to the Ahmanson Theater for the first time since the March 2020 shutdown. That very morning, the show was canceled, along with the rest of the run. Why? The cast and crew experienced a major COVID outbreak. The Rams football game was postponed due to players with COVID. The UCLA basketball game was delayed due to COVID. Many other events, including Broadway shows, the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, and numerous sporting events have been canceled or delayed as well.
Note that the situation is changing so rapidly that all that is certain is that by the time this column goes to press, the picture will surely look different. Still, here are some ominous numbers:
New York City reported 21,027 cases on December 16, the highest single day count of COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic. Feel free to reread that last sentence. Cases in New York doubled in a four-day period.
There have been over 65,000 newly confirmed cases in London in the past seven days, with more than 26,000 cases reported in the last 24-hour period alone. Like New York City, this is the highest single day count since the start of the pandemic. The number of COVID patients in London hospitals rose by 29%.
Paris will not have its traditional fireworks display over the Champs-Elysees due to this surge. All large outdoor events and gatherings will be banned on New Year’s Eve as France faces its fifth wave.
Locally, COVID hospitalizations in Los Angeles County continue to rise, due to this winter surge and a post-Thanksgiving uptick in infections, prompting California to impose a statewide indoor mask-wearing mandate.
Now, on to Omicron. This variant has been found in 89 countries as of December 16. The World Health Organization (WHO) informs us that Omicron cases in those countries are doubling every 1.5 to three days, and that Omicron spreads much faster than the Delta variant due to its large number of mutations. Moreover, Omicron is even spreading in countries where the vaccination rate is very high. In the United States, in just one week, the Omicron variant went from 3% of cases to 73% of all new COVID cases.
How effective are our current vaccines against Omicron? Preliminary data from England shows that two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines are not nearly as effective against Omicron as they are against Delta. However, it appears that for those who have had the booster, protection is far better. This makes the booster shot even more important.
Our biggest hope is that Omicron does not cause as serious an illness as does Delta. Early data indicates that this may be the case, but much more information on hospitalization and death rates is needed. Regardless, Omicron will tax our workforce (health care workers in particular), fill up hospital beds, and cause yet more damage to the economy.
The numbers are serious. We were already heading into a winter surge, and on top of that we now have a far more transmissible variant. You have heard this before: The best defenses are to become vaccinated, get the booster, wear a mask, and despite winter weather, socialize outdoors. Virus mutations do not care that, after these many months, we are all suffering from pandemic fatigue. Please do your best to stay healthy, and be on the lookout for more information from the CDC and the WHO.