Health-care workers at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital in Johannesburg. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/SHARON SERETLO
Health-care workers at Charlotte Maxeke Johannesburg Academic Hospital in Johannesburg. Picture: GALLO IMAGES/SHARON SERETLO

The number of coronavirus infections in Gauteng has been steadily decreasing for more than a week, indicating the province, which has been the hardest hit by the Omicron variant, has reached the peak of its fourth wave infections. 

“Gauteng is going down and certainly some of the other provinces too, but I think it's longer to wait to see what happens nationally,” said Professor Cheryl Cohen of the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) on Wednesday. 

The province was one of the first to experience a surge in infections in November, largely driven by the Omicron variant. The seven-day daily average of infection in the province is, however, declining, says the NICD’s  Michelle Groome. 

“We feel that this has persisted for more than a week and that we are past the peak in Gauteng,” she said.

In addition to Gauteng, decreases have been seen in Limpopo, North West and Mpumalanga, Groome said, adding that the lower number of cases could be due to the low number of people testing and also people heading out of Gauteng as the year-end holiday season gathers pace. 

Against the backdrop of decreasing cases, Cohen said a new study by the NICD found Omicron in SA to be less severe compared to the Delta variant which drove the infections of the third wave in the country earlier this year. 

“In SA, this is the epidemiology — Omicron is behaving in a way that is less severe ... our data really suggest a positive story of a reduced severity of Omicron compared to other variants,” she said.

SA’s experience of the Omicron variant may differ from other countries such as the UK, which has tightened restrictions due to the rapid spread of the variant. SA has remained on level one lockdown restrictions despite the emergence of Omicron and high rate of infections. 

“The lower risk or lower proportions of severe disease we’re seeing in the fourth wave could be due to a number of factors including the level of prior immunity from people who’ve already been vaccinated or had natural infection, or it could also be due to the intrinsic virulence of Omicron,” said the NICD’s  Dr Waasila Jassat at Wednesday’s media briefing. 

The latest NICD study has found that the Omicron variant  has accounted for more than 90% of the recent infections, overtaking the Delta variant. Last Thursday, national infections reached a high of 27,000 but dropped to about 15,000 by Tuesday. 

Scientists found hospital admissions were 80% lower for those infected with Omicron and the risk of severe disease among the hospitalised was 30% lower.  The study also found that unvaccinated people were at a higher risk of death than those who are vaccinated — 87% of those who died from complications of Covid-19 between November 7 and December 18 were unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated. 

maekot@businesslive.co.za

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