Omicron: Have we made it through the third wave?

Graph of UK hospitalisations from Covid

Restrictions lifting

In the UK the government has recently relaxed covid restrictions imposed to contain the spread of the Omicron variant.  We have been told that the limitations imposed in recent weeks have worked.

The vaccination programme which ran through the course of last year brought us all hope of some light at the end of the tunnel.  But just as we were thinking it might all be over, along came Omicron. 

Case numbers rose significantly over the Christmas period as the new strain took its toll, and hospitalisation numbers soon followed suit.

Now that we have enough data to better assess the impact of Omicron, it seems like a good time to take a fresh look at the numbers and see what they tell us.

Bad news

The bad news is that the rise in case numbers has caused hospitalisations and (sadly) deaths, to spike once more.  The number of new hospitalisations reported each day is currently higher than at any time since the end of January 2021.  The current spike in admissions now ranks as one of three major peaks of the pandemic. 

Fortunately, it looks like new cases and the hospital admission numbers are now starting to flatten and potentially reduce.  If current trends continue, this recent wave will end up being nowhere near as a deadly as the earlier peaks.

Good News

The good news is that the protection afforded by vaccination appears to be working – and working well.  Omicron has not only caused case numbers to spike but has caused them to spike to levels that are truly unprecedented.  Yet, despite this, the levels of serious illness recorded are surprisingly low.

A look at the government data tells us that during the first 10 days of January this year an average of nearly 145,000 people were diagnosed with covid every single day.  That is a significantly higher infection rate than we have seen in any previous wave; nearly three times the level that we were seeing in the same ten-day period for January 2021 (the peak of the previous wave).

However, there is cause for cautious optimism.  The average for new infections during the first ten days of January 2022 is actually a little lower than the average for the last ten days of December 2021.  The most recent data suggests that numbers of new cases look to be on the decline.  Let’s hope this trend continues.

Graph of UK Covid numbers January 2022

Fewer hospitalisations and deaths

But whilst case numbers have reached record highs, the numbers of hospitalisations and deaths certainly have not.  The first ten days of January witnessed an average hospital admission rate of 2,230 covid patients per day.  That is significantly less than the average of 3,935 we saw during the last peak.  So, a near threefold increase in case numbers is now resulting in a much lower rate of serious illness. 

Put simply, if you get a covid diagnosis now, you are five times less likely to end up in hospital than if you’d been diagnosed with covid this time last year.

The news in terms of deaths rates also looks promising.  Despite the higher overall infection rates, death rates are now a fraction of past peak levels.  The average number of deaths recorded per day in early January was 205, compared to a number more than four times higher from a much lower infection rate at the start of 2021. 

As a result, you are 12 times less likely to die of covid if you get infected now, than was the case this time last year. However, that statistic does come with one very important caveat – vaccination.

Vaccination works

Vaccination has played a critical role in keeping hospitalisation and death rates low over the past month or so. 

The success of the vaccination programme does mask some disturbing statistics, however.  The population as a whole is certainly seeing significantly lower rates of hospitalisation and fatalities from covid.  But this is only true amongst those who are vaccinated. 

For the unvaccinated minority, the story is much bleaker.

The Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre recorded that 61% of the patients admitted to critical care in December 2021 with confirmed covid-19 were unvaccinated. 

Government data shows that just 9.4% of the total population is now unvaccinated.  That means that 9.4% of the population account for 61% of the most seriously ill patients. 

Clearly, the lack of vaccine protection makes people significantly more vulnerable to serious illness and death.

The truth is, if you are unvaccinated, you are 15 times more likely to end up in an intensive care unit with covid-19 than someone who is vaccinated.

Weathering the storm

As January 2022 wears on, it looks increasingly likely that we have weathered the storm of the Omicron wave.  A milder (if considerably more infectious) strain, combined with widespread vaccination, has limited the impact of the third wave.

Death rates and hospitalisation rates are far lower than in previous waves.  Nevertheless, the sheer number of infections has placed significant strains on the NHS and that is a problem that we shouldn’t ignore.

That said, the data shows beyond doubt that the vaccination programme is working.  We can afford to be hopeful about the future.

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Sources

BMJ

UK Government coronavirus statistics

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