What Do The First Data Show About The COVID-19 Omicron Variant's Severity?

Just as COVID-19 cases were decreasing in many areas of the United States, the Omicron variant swept into our lives, bringing a lot of uncertainty. We have known from the start that the Omicron variant is likely to be very contagious, but that is about all we know with a reasonable degree of certainty.

As The Atlantic points out, the possibilities are seemingly endless, with the most frightening one being that this variant is the much-dreaded strain of COVID-19 that not only evades vaccines but brings severe illness and death. The best-case scenario, on the other hand, is that even as the virus becomes more contagious, it will result in milder symptoms.

As of yet, we don't have enough data to draw any conclusions about the severity of the Omicron variant, but even as Dr. Anthony Fauci warns against premature optimism, he says that the existing data is pretty promising (via CNN).

Early reports about Omicron severity are encouraging, but more research is needed

On Saturday, Dec. 4, the South African Medical Research Council released a report about an outbreak of COVID-19 in the Tshwane District of South Africa's Gauteng Province, where Omicron cases have already surpassed new Delta cases. It showed that compared to previous waves, COVID-positive patients admitted in the first 2 weeks of this Omicron-driven wave had shorter hospital stays and have been less likely to need supplemental oxygen. Many patients were not admitted for COVID-19 symptoms, but tested positive when they were admitted to the hospital for other reasons.

"The relatively low number of COVID-19 pneumonia hospitalizations in the general, high care and ICU wards constitutes a very different picture compared to the beginning of previous waves," the researchers noted in the report, as they emphasized that the data only reflects the first 2 weeks of this wave. 

As epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina points out (via Your Local Epidemiologist), COVID-19 hospital trends tend to lag behind case trends by at least a couple of weeks. Moreover, many of the COVID-positive patients are young. As a result, these results don't shed much light on how the variant may affect unvaccinated people in high-risk groups.

Dr. Fauci told CNN that these data are "a bit encouraging" but we will need more research before coming to a definitive conclusion, and that vaccination and booster shots should help people avoid serious complications from this variant of COVID-19 and any others.