Case Drop May Show South Africa’s Omicron Peak Has Passed

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JOHANNESBURG, Dec 22 (AP): South Africa’s noticeable drop in new COVID-19 cases in recent days may signal that the country’s dramatic omicron-driven surge has passed its peak, medical experts say.

Daily virus case counts are notoriously unreliable, as they can be affected by uneven testing, reporting delays and other fluctuations. But they are offering one tantalizing hint — far from conclusive yet — that omicron infections may recede quickly after a ferocious spike.

South Africa has been at the forefront of the omicron wave and the world is watching for any signs of how it may play out there to try to understand what may be in store.

After hitting a high of nearly 27,000 new cases nationwide on Thursday, the numbers dropped to about 15,424 on Tuesday. In Gauteng province — South Africa’s most populous with 16 million people, including the largest city, Johannesburg, and the capital, Pretoria — the decrease started earlier and has continued.

“The drop in new cases nationally combined with the sustained drop in new cases seen here in Gauteng province, which for weeks has been the center of this wave, indicates that we are past the peak,” Marta Nunes, senior researcher at the Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics department of the University of Witwatersrand, told The Associated Press.

“It was a short wave … and the good news is that it was not very severe in terms of hospitalizations and deaths,” she said. It is “not unexpected in epidemiology that a very steep increase, like what we saw in November, is followed by a steep decrease.”

Gauteng province saw its numbers start sharply rising in mid-November. Scientists doing genetic sequencing quickly identified the new, highly mutated omicron variant that was announced to the world on Nov. 25.

Significantly more transmissible, omicron quickly achieved dominance in South Africa. An estimated 90% of COVID-19 cases in Gauteng province since mid-November have been omicron, according to tests.

And the world seems to be quickly following, with omicron already surpassing the delta variant as the dominant coronavirus strain in some countries. In the U.S., omicron accounted for 73% of new infections last week, health officials said — and the variant is responsible for an estimated 90% or more of new infections in the New York area, the Southeast, the industrial Midwest and the Pacific Northwest.

Confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.K. have surged by 60% in a week as omicron overtook delta as the dominant variant there. Worldwide, the variant has been detected in at least 89 countries, according to the World Health Organization.

In South Africa, experts worried that the sheer volume of new infections would overwhelm the country’s hospitals, even though omicron appears to cause milder disease, with significantly less hospitalizations, patients needing oxygen and deaths.

But then cases in Gauteng started falling. After reaching 16,000 new infections on Dec. 12, the province’s numbers have steadily dropped, to just over 3,300 cases Tuesday.

“It’s significant. It’s very significant,” Dr. Fareed Abdullah said of the decrease.

“The rapid rise of new cases has been followed by a rapid fall and it appears we’re seeing the beginning of the decline of this wave,” said Abdullah, working in the COVID-19 ward at Pretoria’s Steve Biko Academic Hospital.

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