Is The Early Data On The Omicron Variant Cause For Concern?

In November 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) labeled the Omicron strain of COVID-19 a "variant of concern." The CDC applies the label "variant of concern" when "there is evidence of an increase in transmissibility, more severe disease (for example, increased hospitalizations or deaths), significant reduction in neutralization by antibodies generated during previous infection or vaccination, reduced effectiveness of treatments or vaccines, or diagnostic detection failures."

Since then, while Omicron has been highly transmissible, the variant seems less severe than the Delta variant, with many of those who have been vaccinated reporting milder symptoms (via UC Davis Health). However, science experts say we should not get complacent.

​​"While Omicron does appear to be less severe compared to Delta, especially in those vaccinated, it does not mean it should be categorized as 'mild,'" said the World Health Organization's director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Thursday. "Just like previous variants, Omicron is hospitalizing people and it is killing people" (via Twitter).

The impacts of Omicron's higher case counts

According to the New York Times, even though vaccinated people who are infected with Omicron are experiencing milder symptoms compared to Delta, the proportion of deaths to the number of cases is still worrisome. 

Due to the high transmissibility of Omicron, the United States is now reporting many more new cases of COVID-19 than at any other time during the pandemic (via Worldometers). The sheer number of Omicron cases means more hospitalizations at a time when the United States healthcare system is overwhelmed and understaffed. "It's bad news for COVID patients and it's bad news for everybody else who needs hospital-level care," Dr. Eric Toner, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told NPR. Health experts are already describing the situation as a "national emergency."

Surging caseloads of Omicron are expected for the near future, which will further overburden hospitals, making it more likely that people will die. Some hospitals in harder-hit states are canceling non-emergency procedures due to staffing shortages caused by the onslaught of COVID-19 patients. "Staffing gets stretched to a point where you just can't really effectively provide critical care," Dr. John Hick, an expert on hospital response to medical disasters, told NPR. Healthcare experts worry that if the high levels of hospitalizations due to Omicron continue, this will force doctors to have to make more drastic decisions about who gets care at all.