After the omicron COVID-19 variant was first reported by South Africa to the World Health Organization (WHO) on Nov. 24, the variant was quickly discovered around the world, including in the United States.
Health officials fear it may be more transmissible than other strains of the virus, but some people have claimed that worry over the variant’s spread has been overstated. Multiple accounts with thousands of followers have tweeted that the omicron variant only causes mild illness, and thus isn’t much of a concern.
Are symptoms of the omicron COVID-19 variant always mild?
No, symptoms of the omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus are not always mild. Hospitalizations and death have already occurred. More research is needed to determine the variant’s severity.
WHAT WE FOUND
The omicron variant became the dominant variant in the United States on Dec. 20, less than a month after it was first reported by South Africa. The virus is incredibly new, so data on severity compared to other variants such as delta is limited. Experts are looking into data from South Africa and the United Kingdom to learn more about the variant and its severity, but in both countries, as well as in the United States, there have been people who have been hospitalized and have died from the omicron variant of COVID-19.
In South Africa, daily cases in the country spiked to their highest point since the beginning of the pandemic, but there has not been a similar spike in daily deaths. Hospitalizations in South Africa reflect this trend, as well. This data is being used by some as evidence that the omicron variant leads to more mild disease than other COVID-19 variants.
“In comparison to the fourth wave, weekly average hospital admissions were significantly lower than the average weekly admissions in the third wave during the first two weeks of each wave,” said Dr. Joe Phaahla, South Africa’s minister of health.
But people are still being hospitalized in South Africa. Phaahla said South Africa is seeing a significant rise in hospital admissions — a 70% increase in the last week.
“We do have initial reports that suggest that omicron is less severe compared to delta,” said Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove on the Dec. 17 episode of the World Health Organization (WHO)’s podcast. “However, if again, if we have more cases, more cases mean more hospitalizations, and if a health care system is overburdened, people will die because they won't get the appropriate care that they need.”
While she said the initial reporting suggests omicron is less severe than the delta variant, Van Kerkhove stressed the WHO is still learning about omicron’s severity, and it’s too early to tell how severe the variant is compared to other variants. But she is certain omicron still can cause severe disease in some people.
“We do know that people with omicron can have the full spectrum of disease, everything from asymptomatic infection, mild infection, people needing hospitalization and people have died from omicron,” Van Kerkhove said.
The number of daily COVID-19 cases in the United Kingdom is higher than it has been at any point in the pandemic, and has increased by 63% over the last seven days. The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) said the doubling time of omicron infections in England is every two days.
While the hospitalization rate in the UK hasn’t increased to the same extent over the last seven days, SAGE said that data is misleading because of a data lag in hospital reporting.
“It is still too early to reliably assess the severity of disease caused by Omicron compared to previous variants,” SAGE said in a Dec. 18 video teleconference. “Some severity estimates should start to become available in about a week as hospital data accumulate. Even if there were to be a modest reduction in severity compared to Delta, very high numbers of infections would still lead to significant pressure on hospitals.”
A SAGE subgroup released an omicron modeling report on Dec. 18 separate from the video teleconference on the same date. The subgroup predicted hospitalizations “will increase substantially” in the UK. Additionally, high numbers of cases “will likely lead to significant levels of milder disease that may have implications for workforce and school absences.”
“Healthcare setting-associated infections, in particular, have already been seen and are widely expected, with the subsequent impacts of high staff absence,” the SAGE subgroup said.
Between the incoming rise in hospitalizations and the high staff absences caused by omicron, there is significant risk that the country’s hospitals won’t be able to handle the next wave. “If Omicron is left unchecked the NHS is at risk of being quickly overwhelmed,” said a release from the prime minister’s office.
Officials have held firm on these warnings and predictions regardless of the severity of the disease. That’s because officials don’t yet know how severe infection from omicron is.
“There currently remains no strong evidence that omicron infections are either more or less severe than delta infections,” the SAGE subgroup said.
As of Dec. 21, there has only been a slight increase in COVID-19 related deaths in the UK over the last seven days. The increase in deaths is far smaller than the increase in new cases.
As of Dec. 20, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also maintains that more data is needed to determine omicron’s severity, although it noted in its Dec. 17 weekly review that the preliminary data from South Africa indicates “there are no unusual symptoms associated with omicron variant infection, and as with other variants, some patients are asymptomatic.”
In the U.S., the first death officially attributed to the omicron variant was announced Dec. 20 by health officials in Harris County in Texas.
Much like in South Africa and the United Kingdom, the omicron variant is now believed to be the most common variant in the U.S. The CDC estimates 73% of new cases in the U.S. are from the omicron variant.
Daily cases, daily deaths and new hospital admissions associated with COVID-19 have been on the rise over the past week across the United States.