COVID 19: Wave#3: Omicron Dawn

Friends, I have been keeping quiet about pandemical developments recently because – frankly – I couldn’t think of anything to say.

Looking back at my most recent comments, I realise that I have felt this way for a while.

In October I wrote:

“The UK seems to be living out a form of collective cognitive dissonance, with the scale of infection and death very high from a global perspective. And yet there is widespread behaviour as if it were all over.”

“My guess is that if the death rate and hospitalisation rates remain similar to current rates, then ‘people’ will accept almost any level of infection rates – no matter what the eventual harm from Long COVID, or the risk of generating further variants.

And in November I added:

As we stare into the coming winter, I find it very hard to see how the epidemic will evolve; how the government will respond or how people will respond.

Since then, the disease has continued to kill just over 100 people per day and the third-wave death toll is currently approximately 18,431.

My latest data collation is shown below:

Click the image for a larger version. Logarithmic graph showing positive caseshospital admissions and deaths since the start of the pandemic. The blue arrows show the dates of 2021’s ‘opening’ events. The green dotted line shows an extrapolation from the first week of June. The blue dotted lines show an extrapolation of trends, doubling every 41 days. Also highlighted in purple are the Euro finals, and the dates of returns to school and university in 2020 and 2021. Growth with a doubling time of ~3 days is shown by dotted arrows on the right-hand side of the graph.

The last few months

Very roughly since August we have experienced (in rounded numbers):

  • Roughly 40,000 cases per day
  • Just less than 1000 admissions per day (~0.25 % of cases)
  • More than 100 deaths per day(~15 % of admissions and ~0.04% of reported cases)

There are periods of 2 to 3 weeks where the epidemic grows exponentially, but at a relatively slow rate – doubling every 6 weeks or so. But these growth periods, while concerning, are not sustained.

And we seemed to be set for a long and miserable COVID winter. But a winter in which the NHS was not overwhelmed and in which a tolerable level of social activities could take place.

Omicron Dawn

Although current data show trends continuing as before, genomic analysis indicates that a rapidly increasing fraction of the cases are caused by the so-called omicron variant of COVID-19.

Omicron appears to spreading rapidly with an estimated doubling time of just 3 days or so. This is similar to the doubling rate when the original viral strain hit the UK back in March 2020 – before we had any mitigations in place.

The fact that omicron can spread at this rate amongst a population in which the vast majority have immunity from either vaccination or prior infection is worrying.

The significance of the short doubling time is hard to over-emphasise.

Over a period of 2 weeks during which prevalence of the current delta variant might hardly change, prevalence of the omicron variant might grow by a factor ~16 – all other things remaining constant.

So there is the potential for significant harm.

  • Positive cases could exceed 100,000/day – off the top of the graph at the head of the page. Many people would be ill and isolating. And mixing at Christmas could easily lead to super-spreading events.
  • Even if omicron is less harmful than delta, and even if the growth is not quite so explosive as anticipated, hospital admissions – particularly in certain areas – could rise rapidly to high levels.
  • And if cases and admissions rise, then an increased rate of death would inevitably follow a couple of weeks later.

Please notice the words in blue above. Among European countries, omicron seems to be hitting the UK first, and so there is still considerable uncertainty about how the epidemic will evolve.

So…

We are expecting:

  • A sharp rise in cases in the couple of weeks leading up to Christmas.
  • A delayed rise in admissions to hospital around the start of the New Year.
  • And a rise in the rate of death in January 2022.

But the magnitude of all these effects is very hard to anticipate.

Please take care.

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