Prof Dominic Harrison’s column: The rise of Omicron

Published Thursday 16 December 2021 at 15:29

Covid Omicron cases across Lancashire continue to rise, adding to the existing rising case rate of the Covid Delta variant. It’s now more important than ever to get vaccinated to protect yourself and your loved ones against this variant which spreads much faster than others we have seen.

On Tuesday, Blackburn with Darwen had 25 confirmed Omicron cases and 66 possible cases. These numbers are likely to be vastly lower than the actual Omicron cases we have as many will go undetected and undiagnosed.

Overall Covid rates in Blackburn with Darwen on Tuesday were at 398 per 100,000. Many Lancashire local authority areas were much higher, for instance Ribble Valley is at 484 cases per 100,000. The Blackburn with Darwen rates are still below the English average case rate, but the borough is now rising up the national league table. Just over a week ago we were 26th lowest in England and are now only 51st lowest.

London and the South East region continue to have the earliest surge of Omicron cases – and London’s Omicron cases are expected to rise to 50% of all cases by early next week. As with previous Covid variant waves, case rates rise and travel across the country with a surge in different places at different times. The rising surge seen in London this week has not yet arrived in the North West – but it soon will.

In response to this new challenge, Boris Johnson has triggered Covid Plan B measures and announced a target to vaccinate everyone eligible above 18 with a booster dose of the vaccine by the end of this year. This is an enormously challenging target. To achieve this, the NHS in Blackburn with Darwen will need to give 145,200 jabs to get everyone aged 18+ covered to booster level by the end of the month. This means we would need to vaccinate 7,642 per day or 53,500 per week for the remaining 19 days of December starting from Monday this week. To date our highest vaccination week was 18th-24th May 2021 where we vaccinated 13,420. Most recently we gave 5,000 doses per week

However, local authorities across Lancashire are pitching in to support this huge vaccination effort. By providing admin and marshalling support, NHS staff can be freed up to get on with the most important job – getting booster jabs into people’s arms. With everyone pulling together, we can rise to the challenge of meeting the government’s ambitious target and boosting our collective protection against Covid this winter. Will the current Plan B measures alongside a heroic surge in booster vaccinations be enough to match the likely risk of rising Omicron cases? At the moment this is uncertain. The risks are being re-calibrated daily across all European countries as further evidence emerges. Looking at the same evidence available to the government in England, Scotland is now extending Plan B measures to include further advice on restricting social mixing before and after Christmas.

Views on the best action to take are increasingly polarised. Some argue that Plan B plus a surge in booster jabs will be enough to match the Omicron risks and that we should not over-react. Others argue that the country is taking a too hopeful stance and that at this point in every other wave we have underestimated the impacts, down-played evidence of surge risk, and triggered necessary action too late. There does seem to be a consensus however that the Omicron wave will be faster, shorter, sharper and higher than the previous variant waves, with a peak of infections somewhere between Christmas and the end of January.

As the Omicron wave arrives, the best advice is: get jabbed and boosted as soon as you can – make your appointment on the online NHS booking system. Please also continue to stick to the basic infection control measures – face coverings, hand hygiene etc. Where you can, try to reduce the number of people you’re mixing with, and test before any family, social or work gathering. But about all, don’t panic and look after yourself – get out for a walk each day if you can. And finally, where you can do this safely, support your neighbours, the old, the vulnerable or those self-isolating through the coming winter months.

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