UK: Is the Worst of Omicron Really Over?, Mexican President’s Family & Officials Isolate, US with New Covid Record, World Stats, More

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Nick Triggle
BBC Health correspondent
@nicktriggleon Twitte

Shoppers in Cardiff, December 2021Image source, Getty Images

Covid cases in the UK are on the way down – at least according to the daily figures released by the government.

The number of cases confirmed over the past seven days is 13% down on the previous week.

But does this really mean the Omicron wave has peaked?

Chart showing that the number of daily cases remains high in the UK. Updated 11 Jan.
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These are, after all, only the people who come forward for testing.

As infections have risen to record levels there have been reports of people struggling to get access to tests.

The figures also exclude – apart from in Wales – those who are re-infected, something that has become increasingly common with the rise of the Omicron variant.

And a regular survey, that aims to calculate levels of Covid in the population at large, appears to show the testing programme is picking up a smaller proportion of cases than it once did.

It means there needs to be a degree of caution when it comes to interpreting what is happening.

Good news from hospitals

Instead, the biggest clue Omicron may be peaking, and arguably a more important measure of Covid, is how many cases are ending up in hospital. From this data we can see the number of admissions appears to have plateaued at just above 2,200 a day in the UK, about half last winter’s peak.

Chart showing hospital admissions
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The national figure, however, masks what is happening regionally and between different nations.

London, where Omicron took off quickly, started seeing a drop first. There is now a clear downward trend in admissions.

Chart showing regional hospital cases
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Elsewhere there are signs of falls too, or at least a flattening.

But the trend in the north-east of England and Yorkshire is still upwards. Omicron has not peaked everywhere – at least in terms of hospital admissions.

The situation could change

Some experts have expressed concern this overall levelling off could be short-lived though. The fear is a greater proportion of the infections could spread to older people, who are most at risk of serious illness.

There are some encouraging signs here, however. Firstly, the number of cases in the over-60s appears to be falling, along with that in lower age groups.

Chart showing age breakdown
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Secondly, the spread in older age groups does not seem to be translating into the hospital cases you might expect.

NHS bosses say outbreaks in care homes have not led to significant numbers becoming seriously ill. The boosters seem to have had the desired effect.

“There are some promising signs – the outcomes at the moment certainly look better than feared”, says Prof Graham Medley, an expert in infectious disease at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and one of the government’s lead modellers.

So is it nearly over?

But Prof Medley says there is still a risk of a long, flat peak or for infections and serious illness to drop very slowly. Last winter the lockdown halted the virus in its tracks and ensured a relatively quick descent from the peak.

This slow decline has – to some extent – been seen in South Africa, where the variant was first reported. There, cases have been dropping much more slowly after an initial big fall once they peaked.

Chart showing South Africa cases
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“If we stay at or close to the levels we have at the moment for some time, the NHS will remain under huge pressure,” says Prof Medley.

What will determine that are two key factors – immunity and public behaviour.

While there has been much talk about waning immunity, the sheer number of infections over the past month or so and the number of boosters given means, in the short-term at least, immunity across the population should hold up well.

It is mixing that is likely to have a greater impact, says Prof Mike Tildesley, from Warwick University.

Survey data suggests at the end of December people were averaging 2.7 contacts a day – not that much above what was seen during the very first lockdown.

“People were really taking care over Christmas, reducing their mixing so they could spend time with family,” he says. “But… with schools back and people working again… we could see infections go up again.”

However, it may only be a “bump”, he believes. “I don’t expect to see a surge in admissions now – not to the level of last winter.”

If he is right, that leaves the UK very much in best-case scenario territory. When Omicron took off there were warnings hospital admissions could end up more than three times as high as they are now. There may still be a long way to go, but it’s looking promising compared with what we were told could have happened.

Data journalism by Will Dahlgreen


US sets new COVID-19 hospitalization record

Medical staff move a COVID-19 patient from the emergency room into the COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit

© Getty Images

The United States on Tuesday set a new record for COVID-19 hospitalizations, with more than 145,000 people in the hospital with the virus.

  • The 145,982 people hospitalized with COVID-19, according to Department of Health and Human Services data, surpasses the previous peak of about 142,000 people set in January 2021, during a major winter surge before vaccines were widely available.
  • People who are vaccinated and especially those who received their booster shots are well protected against severe disease and hospitalization from the virus.
  • But the sheer number of cases of COVID-19, fueled by the highly transmissible omicron variant, means that even a small percentage leading to hospitalization causes a surge that strains hospitals.

The hospitalizations are driven in large part by people who are unvaccinated. Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease doctor at Emory University and at Grady Hospital in Atlanta, said last week that 80 to 90 percent of the patients primarily in the hospital for COVID-19 were unvaccinated, or in some cases had two shots of vaccine (without a booster) and had an underlying condition.

About a third of the patients with the virus, he said, have tested positive for COVID-19 but are not primarily in the hospital because of the virus.

Big picture: Overwhelmed hospitals also reduce the quality of care for vaccinated people who need help for non-COVID-19 issues, like a car crash or a heart attack.


Mexican president’s family, some government officials isolating after his COVID-19 diagnosis

Mexico's President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador holds a news conference in Zacatecas, Mexico November 25, 2021. Mexico's Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

Mexico’s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador holds a news conference in Zacatecas, Mexico November 25, 2021. Mexico’s Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

MEXICO CITY, Jan 11 (Reuters) – Some members of Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s family and cabinet were isolating and taking COVID-19 tests on Tuesday after he announced he was diagnosed with COVID-19 for the second time a day earlier.

Lopez Obrador, who announced he had tested positive on Monday evening, may have met with at least four members of his cabinet, including Interior Minister Adan Augusto Lopez, earlier that day, according to a report by Mexican newspaper El Universal.

A spokesman for the president did not confirm how many people he may have had contact with before testing positive, but said there were “members of the cabinet and his family.” “So far none have symptoms and those who have been tested have been negative,” the spokesman told Reuters.

The head of Mexico’s consumer protection agency, Ricardo Sheffield, who attended the president’s regular news conference on Monday morning, said on Twitter that he plans to take a PCR test on Tuesday and is currently isolating out of precaution.

Lopez Obrador’s wife, Beatriz Gutierrez, said on her Facebook account that she and the couple’s son, Jesus, are currently isolating as a precaution, but that they have not tested positive, nor do they have symptoms.

“We are sure that this virus will be out of the house soon,” she said.

Lopez Obrador said in a video message shown at the regular news conference Tuesday, which was run by Lopez, that he was doing well and would continue working. He urged Mexicans to keep looking after themselves, but not to be alarmed as the Omicron variant fueled a jump in cases.

“Fortunately, this is a variant that does not have the level of danger as the Delta variant,” said Lopez Obrador, 68.

Health Minister Jorge Alcocer told reporters he expected the president to need about a week to recover, and that he could be returning to the daily news conferences next week.

“Fortunately he’s doing well, without serious symptoms,” Interior Minister Lopez said of the president before Lopez Obrador’s video message. “He’s resting, as is medically required, and we hope he feels better in the next few days.”

Reporting by Raul Cortes and Kylie Madry; Editing by Cassandra Garrison and Andrea Ricci



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