On Monday, public health authorities in Denmark and Norway released gloomy predictions for the upcoming wave of the Omicron coronavirus, which would dominate both countries within a few days. While scientists do not yet know how often this variant causes severe illness, they say its high rate of spread will lead to an explosive increase in the number of cases and could potentially increase the burden on hospitals, even if it turns out to be mild.
The reports follow similar worrying findings from England released over the weekend, although researchers warn that the trend could reverse as the option becomes clearer. It is not yet known how often Omicron infections will send people to the hospital or how many hospitalized patients may die. And while Omicron may partly shy away from immune defenses, researchers have yet to determine how well vaccinations and previous infections will protect people from serious illness.
The authors of both new reports also noted that quick action now, such as campaigns to leverage and reduce Omicron’s distribution opportunities, could reduce the impact of the option.
American researchers have yet to release the Omicron growth models in the United States. But experts point out that the country is similar to Norway and Denmark in terms of vaccination rates and certain Covid risk factors, such as the average age of the population.
“It would be naive to think that the United States would be any different from Denmark,” said Mads Albertsen, a microbiologist at Aalborg University. Denmark is probably the best scenario.
In recent weeks, many epidemiologists have turned their attention to Denmark, a country of 5.8 million, to the population of Wisconsin.
At the onset of the pandemic, the country established a sophisticated surveillance system that combines large-scale coronavirus testing with genetic sequencing of many samples. This strategy has enabled Denmark to identify newly emerging options, even when they are at low levels, and to adjust public health policies to prepare for new leaps.
The first sample of Omicron from Denmark was sequenced on December 3rd. The sample was collected on November 23, around the same time that researchers in South Africa first informed the world of an increase in the incidence in that country.
Since the sequencing of genetic material from coronavirus samples can take several days, Danish researchers have developed a rapid genetic test that detects several key mutations found only in Omicron. Every positive test result in Denmark is now checked for a new variant, giving an exceptionally complete picture of Omicron’s spread.
In a report released Monday by the Statens Serum Institute in Copenhagen, researchers estimate that the number of Omicron cases in Denmark is doubling every two days. Omicron is spreading much faster than Delta, which means the new variant will become dominant by mid-week, the report said.
Three quarters of Omicron infections occur in people who have received two doses of the vaccine, which is about the same proportion of the entire country that is fully vaccinated. Such a high percentage indicates that vaccines do little to protect against infection, although most scientists believe that vaccines will reflect severe illness and death.
The Danish data is consistent with a smaller report of Omicron infections in the United States. Of the 43 documented cases, 34 – or about 79 percent are fully vaccinated.
“This thing can spread, and it can spread whether you’ve been vaccinated or not,” said Cristina Ramirez, a biostatist at the University of California, Los Angeles.
In England, researchers also found that complete vaccination provides little protection against breakthrough infection. But they found that booster shots restored defense to a much higher level.
Dec 13, 2021 5:12 PM ET
In these European countries, Omicron will not just replace Delta: it will increase the number of hits. Denmark currently has about 6,000 cases per day, already a country record that is almost entirely implemented by Delta. Danish researchers predict that Omicron will bring the number of daily cases to 10,000 by the end of the week, and these numbers will continue to rise.
The model predicts that explosive growth could send large numbers of people to the hospital, even if the Omicron variant turns out to be milder than previous variants. Danish researchers also warned that outbreaks of Omicron in hospitals, even if mild, could lead to dangerous staff cuts as doctors and nurses are sent home to quarantine.
The authors of the new report warned that their model is preliminary. For example, it did not take into account the powerful protection that accelerators can afford. Right now, 21 percent of people in Denmark have gotten boosted and the country is waging an aggressive revaccination campaign.
Still, Troels Lillebeck, director of the Statens Serum Institute, said the next few weeks will be a tough test for the country’s hospitals.
“Despite the uncertainty about the exact severity and infectiousness of Omicron, there is a very high risk of increased hospitalizations,” he said.
In Norway, researchers have also observed a skyrocketing rise in the number of omicrons in recent days. “The Omicron variant is becoming more and more popular in Norway and will soon become dominant,” the Norwegian Institute of Public Health said in a statement Monday.
Coronavirus pandemic: what you need to know
There are about 800,000 coronavirus deaths in the United States. The United States is on the verge of more than 800,000 deaths from the virus, and no group is more affected than older Americans. Seventy-five percent of people who have died in the United States were 65 or older. One in 100 older Americans has died from the virus.
In a preliminary scenario, the institute estimated that in about three weeks there would be between 90,000 and 300,000 cases per day – a sharp increase from the current rate of about 4,700 cases per day, a record for Norway.
Norwegian researchers also said that this could lead to significantly more hospitalizations, even if the Omicron is milder. They predict that Norwegian hospitals will admit between 50 and 200 hospitalizations every day, unless quick action slows down the epidemic significantly. Right now, there are about 30 hospitalizations every day in Norway, and this is already enough to overwhelm the country’s hospitals.
“There is an urgent need to curb the Covid-19 epidemic with significant measures to prevent the Omicron variant from triggering an epidemic wave that weighs heavily on disease and completely overwhelms the health service,” warned the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.
Denmark imposed new public health restrictions last week, including requiring restaurants and bars to close at midnight and moving some schools to virtual teaching ahead of the winter break. He is also speeding up his sales promotion campaign. The Danish health authority said Monday that people aged 40 and over and at least four and a half months after their second shot are now eligible for a third dose.
The Norwegian government has also accelerated the deployment of boosters and announced other new measures on Monday, although it has not resulted in complete isolation. New measures include a ban on mask use indoors, a ban on serving alcohol, restrictions on gatherings and social distancing requirements at organized events.
“Omicron is also likely to spread rapidly among the population in the United States,” said Dr. Christopher Murray, director of the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, which plans to release its Omicron models later this week.
“I expected to see Omicron in the US become the really dominant variety at the end of the month or sometime in January,” he said.
But since much remains unknown about the severity of this option, it is difficult to predict how its spread will affect hospitalization.
“There is a very wide range of possible outcomes,” said Dr. Murray.
One of the key indicators will be the simultaneous increase in the number of cases and hospitalizations in the coming weeks; If the number of hospitalizations increases much more slowly than the number of cases, it will be a good sign, he said.
But even if Omicron turns out to be relatively benign, its rapid spread could still pose a heavy burden on hospitals, experts warn.
“Imagine it spreading so fast that it triggers an outbreak that peaks at twice the number of people infected, but half the likelihood of someone going to hospital,” said Jeffrey Shaman, infectious disease epidemiologist at Columbia University. … “Well, it’s a wash. This means that you will see the same fascination that we saw last winter. “
The spike in Delta cases has already affected some hospitals, and the arrival of Omicron also coincides with flu season, according to Joshua Salomon, an infectious disease expert and modeler at Stanford University.
“The surge in Omicron on top of the surge in Delta, while there may be an increase in the number of flu cases, is a very alarming combination,” he said.
Henrik Priser Liebell provided a reportage from Oslo, and Yasmina Nielsen from Copenhagen.