As the Omicron coronavirus variant sweeps through South Africa, Dr. Unben Pillay is seeing dozens of sick patients a day. Yet he hasn’t had to send anyone to the hospital.
That’s one of the reasons why he, along with other doctors and medical experts, suspect that the Omicron version really is causing milder COVID-19 than Delta, even if it seems to be spreading faster.
“They are able to manage the disease at home,” Pillay said of his patients. “Most have recovered within the 10- to 14-day isolation period,” said Pillay.
And that includes older patients and those with health problems that can make them more vulnerable to becoming severely ill from a coronavirus infection, he said.
According to South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases:
- Only about 30 percent of those hospitalized with COVID-19 in recent weeks have been seriously ill, less than half the rate as during the first weeks of previous pandemic waves.
- Average hospital stays for COVID-19 have been shorter this time — about 2.8 days compared to eight days.
- Just 3% of patients hospitalized recently with COVID-19 have died, versus about 20% in the country’s earlier outbreaks.
“At the moment, virtually everything points toward it being milder disease,” Willem Hanekom, director of the Africa Health Research Institute, said, citing the national institute’s figures and other reports. “It’s early days, and we need to get the final data. Often hospitalizations and deaths happen later, and we are only two weeks into this wave.”
In the meantime, scientists around the world are watching case counts and hospitalization rates, while testing to see how well current vaccines and treatments hold up. While Delta is still the dominant coronavirus strain worldwide, Omicron cases are popping up in dozens of countries, with South Africa the epicenter.