In most countries, reported infections have hit record highs during the Omicron wave, smashing previous records.
Fortunately, the variant has turned out to be up to 90% milder than the previous Delta variant, so the large outbreaks have not led to overwhelmed hospitals or heavy death tolls. Nonetheless, many countries have seen substantial waves of Covid deaths, notably Denmark, but also South Africa (where the deaths have continued to climb despite reported infections dropping off since mid-December), Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Norway (among others, including America).
Importantly, though, these Omicron deaths are not leading to a wave of excess deaths, which have come down across the board since Omicron took over (see below). Denmark has seen a small rise in the most recent week, but not anywhere near as much as the scale of recent Covid deaths might lead you to expect. The Danish Government has been keen to stress that many of the Omicron deaths are ‘with’ rather than ‘from’ Covid. The ONS is currently reporting that around a third of deaths registered as Covid deaths in England and Wales are from a different underlying cause.
Deaths are usually higher in January and February owing to the winter flu wave each year. This means the average number of deaths at this time of year is higher, so that even if there is a wave of winter ‘flu’ (or Covid) deaths there may not be any excess deaths if the wave is a smaller wave than normal. That is likely what is happening this year, with the Omicron wave being like a mild flu wave so not clocking up excess deaths. We can see this clearly in the data for England and Wales from the ONS (below), where the wave of deaths due to Omicron, while still a wave (or a ripple), is trending significantly below the five-year average. The average shown below includes data from 2021, which was a severe winter (by recent standards), but if the 2015-19 average is used instead the trend is still below average (about 3% below).
This makes the Omicron wave largely a phantom Covid wave, as the massive levels of reported infections are translating into relatively few Covid deaths (for the number of infections), which are themselves translating into low or zero excess deaths. No wonder sensible countries are lifting restrictions.
A final note on India. Like Botswana (where Omicron was first detected) but unlike most places, India’s Omicron wave was smaller than its Delta wave. Is this because of higher levels of natural immunity following the huge Delta wave last spring? India’s Covid deaths have also dropped sharply since the start of the month, albeit not yet to where they were before Omicron hit. Unfortunately, we don’t have data on excess deaths in India to compare with Covid deaths, but despite relatively low vaccination rates (around 50%) it appears that India has now weathered its Omicron wave and is out the other side.
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