“The speed with which the omicron-driven
fourth wave rose, peaked and then declined has been staggering,” said Fareed
Abdullah of the South African Medical Research Council. “Peak in four weeks and
precipitous decline in another two. This omicron wave is over in the city of
Tshwane. It was a flash flood more than a wave.” The rise in deaths over the
period was small, and in the last week, officials said, “marginal.”
Some scientists were quick to forecast the
same pattern elsewhere.
“We’ll be in for a tough January, as cases
will keep going up and peak, and then fall fast,” said Ali Mokdad, a University
of Washington epidemiologist who is a former Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention scientist. While cases will still overwhelm hospitals, he said, he
expects that the proportion of hospitalised cases will be lower than in earlier
Omicron, bearing dozens of troubling
mutations, was first identified in Botswana and South Africa in late November.
It rapidly became dominant in South Africa, sending case counts skyrocketing to
a pandemic peak averaging more than 23,000 cases a day by mid-December,
according to the Our World in Data project at Oxford University.
As of last week, omicron appeared in 95% of
all new positive test samples that were genetically sequenced. It has spread to
more than 100 countries, infecting previously vaccinated and previously
infected people, and its proliferation has strained hospitals and thinned
workforces in countries like the United States and Britain.
In South Africa, overall case counts have been
falling for two weeks, plummeting 30% in the past week to an average of less
than 11,500 a day. Confirmed cases declined in all provinces except Western
Cape and Eastern Cape, the data showed, and there was a drop in
hospitalisations in all provinces except Western Cape.
There are many caveats. The case figures might
have been distorted by reduced testing during the holiday season. And many
people in the most affected area had some measure of immunity, either from
vaccination, prior infection or both, that might have protected them from
However, research teams in South Africa,
Scotland and England have found that omicron infections more often result in
mild illness than earlier variants of the coronavirus, causing fewer
South African officials last week ended
tracing efforts and scrapped quarantine for people who were possibly exposed
but not experiencing symptoms. “Containment strategies are no longer
appropriate — mitigation is the only viable strategy,” the government said
then. On Thursday, the government announced an end to its midnight-to-4 a.m.
curfew. Still, gatherings are limited to 1,000 people indoors, with appropriate
social distancing, and 2,000 people outdoors. Face coverings in public places
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