We are delighted to have some cautiously good Covid-19 news for you! A study has found that, so far, people catching Omicron in the UK have gone into hospital less often than people catching the Delta variant. This suggests that Omicron so far is making a smaller percentage of people seriously ill, compared to Delta.
At the moment, mainly younger people are catching Omicron in the UK. Because younger people are less likely than older people to go into hospital, this may be affecting the percentage of people seen to go into hospital after catching Omicron. Over the next few weeks, higher numbers of older and clinically vulnerable people will start to catch Omicron, because Omicron can avoid the protection given by vaccines that older and CV people have. At that point, the overall percentage of people going to hospital with Omicron might increase.
OMICRON IS NOT MILD!
Using the phrase ‘milder’ suggests Omicron is not as bad for the country or the individual as Delta. That is NOT so far true. In fact, measured overall, Omicron is much MORE severe both for people and the country than Delta. Beware of people and the media telling you that this study means Omicron is mild – they are talking nonsense.
The overall ‘severity’ or ‘mildness’ of a virus is decided by looking at lots of factors, such as how well it spreads, how it survives in the environment, whether it can avoid vaccine protection and how ill it makes people. Omicron is very much worse than Delta because it spreads so much faster, infects people so easily and avoids vaccine protection. The only way in which Omicron may be ‘milder’ than Delta is that, so far, a lower percentage of people catching Omicron are going into hospital.
If a lower percentage of people catching Omicron have to go into hospital, but there are 3 or 5 times as many people infected with Omicron, the result is that many more people go to hospital with Omicron. That means Omicron, overall, is more severe than Delta.
The study does mean, however, that Omicron is not as severe as feared. If the same percentage of people catching Omicron had needed to go to hospital as have to go with Delta, the hundreds of thousands of people infected with Omicron would have meant a hideous medical catastrophe. Even with a lower percentage going to hospital, the NHS is unlikely to be able to cope with Omicron because of the higher overall numbers. See below for a more detailed explanation.
WHAT DID THE STUDY DO?
The study was by the Medical Research Council’s Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis, at Imperial College London. This is what they did.
- They searched the NHS patient database to find people who had tested positive for either the Delta or Omicron variant of Covid-19. Lots of people were excluded to make the study stronger, such as people who had recently travelled abroad.
- They then looked at whether those people had been to a hospital for any reason within 14 days of testing positive, and whether they had been admitted to hospital for more than 1 day.
- They then compared how often people with Omicron had visited a hospital or were admitted to hospital compared to people with Delta. Complicated statistical tools were used to make sure the comparison was fair and meaningful. For example, most people with Omicron were young people, whereas people with Delta had a wider age range. This process means that the results are general – much more data will be needed to produce more specific results.
- The study also looked at people who were vaccinated versus people who were not vaccinated, and people who had caught Covid-19 before versus those who had not. However, there was not enough data to do these comparisons very accurately.
THE STUDY RESULTS
The study found that, if you look at NHS records overall:
- people who caught Omicron were 20 to 25% LESS likely to visit a hospital within 2 weeks of testing positive, compared to people who caught Delta.
- people who caught Omicron were 40 to 45% LESS likely to be admitted to a hospital for more than one day within 2 weeks of testing positive, compared to people who caught Delta
- people who are vaccinated and people who have had Covid-19 before were between 50% and 69% LESS likely to be admitted to hospital if they caught Omicron, compared to people who caught Delta.
This suggests that Omicron is currently causing severe illness in less people compared to Delta, especially for people who are vaccinated or who have had Covid-19 before. However, it’s important to remember that Omicron is nevertheless still making many people so severely ill so that they need hospital treatment. Omicron is not ‘just a cold’ or ‘like the flu’ as some people claim.
The study did not look at deaths, so we have no idea yet whether Omicron leads to more, less or the same number of fatalities as Delta. People usually die of Covid more than 4-6 weeks after being infected, so it is far too early to know this.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR YOU?
This study is good news as far as it goes. It shows that people are less likely to go into hospital with Omicron than they were with Delta, especially if you are vaccinated or if you have had Covid-19 before. But being less likely to go into hospital isn’t the same thing as Omicron being safe. Some people who catch Omicron will still go into hospital, and some people will sadly die with Omicron. There is also the risk of Long Covid to consider. So, not catching Omicron is still the best and safest idea, especially if you are older or clinically vulnerable, or unvaccinated.
Remember, only the most severe life-threatening cases of Covid-19 go into hospital nowadays. People with serious Covid illness are encouraged to stay at home with an oxygen monitor until the last minute. So, a lower risk of being admitted to hospital doesn’t mean Omicron won’t make you very ill at home – perhaps developing into Long Covid and a long-term disability.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR THE COUNTRY & NHS?
As we said before, the overall ‘severity’ or ‘mildness’ of a virus is decided by looking at lots of factors, such as how well it spreads, how it survives in the environment and how ill it makes people. Omicron is very much worse than Delta because it spreads so much faster and infects people so easily. More than twice as many people are catching Omicron every day compared to Delta. Currently, reported new cases are over 110,000 (and likely higher) every day whereas under Delta it was around 40,000 per day.
Here are some example figures to help you understand why this makes Omicron more severe than Delta even if it makes a smaller percentage of people seriously ill.
Deaths: If Delta killed 0.05% of people infected and 40,000 people caught Delta every day, that is (40,000 ÷ 100) x 0.05 = 20 deaths every day. If Omicron is half as severe and kills 0.025% of people infected, but 110,000 people caught Omicron every day, that is (110,000 ÷ 100) x 0.025 = 28 people killed every day. So, although a smaller percentage of people catching Omicron have died, the actual number of deaths is larger by over a third.
Hospitalisations: If 1% of people infected with Delta have to go to hospital and 40,000 people catch Delta every day, that is (40,000 ÷ 100) x 1 = 400 people in hospital every day. If 0.5% of people infected with Omicron have to go to hospital, but 110,000 people catch Omicron every day, that is (110,000 ÷ 100) x 0.5 = 550 people in hospital every day. So, although a smaller percentage of people catching Omicron have gone to hospital, the actual number in hospital is larger by over a third.
Ill at Home: If 10% of people infected with Delta are badly ill at home and 40,000 people catch Delta every day, that is (40,000 ÷ 100) x 10 = 4000 people badly ill at home every day. If 5% of people infected with Omicron are badly ill at home and 110,000 people catch Delta every day, that is (110,000 ÷ 100) x 5 = 5500 people badly ill at home. So, although a smaller percentage of people catching Omicron have got badly ill at home, the actual number badly ill at home is larger by over a third.
And while we don’t yet know if Omicron is going to cause lower levels of Long Covid as Delta, the examples above show that Omicron will lead to many more people with Long Covid than Delta would have.
Summing this up, the study suggests a lower percentage of people catching Omicron will need hospital treatment, which is good. However, the Government’s failure to introduce precautions to prevent the spread of Omicron mean the numbers catching Omicron are skyrocketing – maybe 150,000 a day already being infecetd with Omicron. This is why the study and BuDS says that it is completely misleading to say that Omicron is ‘milder ‘than Delta. Omicron may make a smaller percentage of people seriously ill or die, but it makes a bigger number of people seriously ill or dead.
Overall, despite it causing less serious illness, we think the impact of Omicron is still going to be very severe, with more people in hospital, more deaths and the NHS almost certainly unable to cope. The impact on other health care will be huge and we will see many avoidable deaths and serious illnesses (including mental illnesses) from other diseases and conditions because the NHS was unable to treat them properly.
The key message hasn’t changed because we now know a smaller percentage of people catching Omicron will need hospital treatment compared to Delta. It is still vital to not catch Omicron, particularly if you are older, clinically vulnerable or unvaccinated. See our latest risk assessment for more details: https://buds.org.uk/covid-19-risk-assessment-week-ending-20-december-2021/
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