This week’s Coronavirus Column

Published Friday 10 December 2021 at 9:20

Dominic Harrison, Director of Public Health and Wellbeing for Blackburn with Darwen:

Omicron surge: Get vaccinated now

The government had no choice but to move to Plan B this week. It would have been better to have moved to these higher levels of infection control in November.

Reliance on vaccine protection alone without continued community infection control measures was never going to be enough to keep us safe over winter. Plan B will have a significant economic impact, but not taking action now would have an even greater economic cost.

We currently have Omicron cases in every region of England. Omicron variant cases are also being identified from community transmission, not just from travellers returning from abroad. Whilst numbers of Omicron are still low compared to Delta, confirmed Omicron cases are doubling every three days which is a very rapid rate of spread.  Thankfully, the North West is not the worst affected region in England in relation to Omicron so far; Omicron cases are highest in the South East and Eastern regions.

Modelling the likely rise of the new variant is now underway – early estimates suggest Omicron could overtake Delta as the main circulating variant very quickly, possibly sometime between Christmas and the end of January with cases peaking in that time. As rising cases take a number of weeks to translate into rising hospitalisations, this will create a very high risk of a surge in demand across the health and care system before the end of March, even if, as expected, many cases generate less severe effects in fully vaccinated people than Delta.

Omicron is more infectious than Delta and previous Covid variants. It looks like it can re-infect some people who have had Covid before, but who are not yet fully vaccinated and boosted. Those infected with Omicron may shed virus at an earlier stage in the infection cycle, so they are infectious for longer before they know they are a case. The virus appears more transmissible to close contacts. These characteristics raise the likely R0 value (the number of others infected by a single case) and are amongst the reasons for more rapid community transmission.

Alongside health impacts, the rapid rise of Omicron alongside Delta presents very significant business continuity risks. If the three days doubling continues, there will be an increasing business continuity risk into the new year, with very significant challenges for health and social care service delivery as an increasing number of confirmed cases have to self-isolate.

Family mixing over Christmas is likely to generate a further upward pressure on cases. It is possible that the government may need to implement stricter control measures immediately after the new year, to reduce NHS and social care risks and to manage the wider risks of business continuity in critical infrastructure. Any new controls will probably be something short of a lockdown.

Not all the current Covid news is negative, but even the good news is giving us important warnings. Covid hospitalisations are currently down, with East Lancashire Hospitals Trust showing only 34 Covid hospitalised cases at the end of last week – down from 83 cases four weeks ago.  Of these current cases, eight are from Blackburn with Darwen, but here is the warning: of these eight hospitalised BwD cases on Friday of last week, five were unvaccinated and three had only two doses but had not yet got their booster dose.

The message here is very clear. Those who are currently at high risk of hospitalisation are now principally the unvaccinated and the incompletely vaccinated.

Early research suggests that people who are double-jabbed and boosted will still have a high level of protection from hospitalisation or death from Omicron. With an Omicron surge highly likely, now is the time to get your jabs.

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