JOHANNESBURG (AP) – South Africa’s noticeable decline in new COVID-19 cases in recent days may signal that the country’s dramatic omicron-driven rise has passed its peak, medical experts say.
The daily number of virus cases is notoriously unreliable as they can be affected by uneven testing, reporting delays and other fluctuations. But they provide a tempting hint – far from crucial yet – that omicron infections can disappear quickly after a sharp rise.
South Africa has been at the forefront of the omicron wave and the world is keeping an eye on signs of how it can play out there to try to understand what may be in store.
After hitting a high of nearly 27,000 new cases nationwide on Thursday, the numbers dropped to about 15,424 on Tuesday. In the province of Gauteng – South Africa’s most populous with 16 million people, including the largest city, Johannesburg, and its capital, Pretoria – the decline started earlier and continues.
“The decline in new cases nationally combined with the sustained decline in new cases seen here in the province of Gauteng, which has been at the center of this wave for weeks, indicates that we are past the top,” said Marta Nunes, senior researcher at Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics. department at the University of Witwatersrand, the Associated Press reported.
“It was a short wave … and the good news is that it was not very serious in terms of hospitalizations and deaths.“she said. It is” not unexpected in epidemiology that a very steep rise, like the one we saw in November, is followed by a steep fall. “
The province of Gauteng saw its numbers start to rise sharply in mid-November. Researchers doing genetic sequencing quickly identified the new, highly mutated omicron variant, which was announced to the world on November 25th.
Significantly more transferable, omicron quickly gained dominance in South Africa. It is estimated that 90% of COVID-19 cases in Gauteng province since mid-November have been omicron according to tests.
And the world seems to be following fast, with omicron already surpassing the delta variant as the dominant coronavirus strain in some countries. In the US, omicron accounted for 73% of new infections last week, health officials said – and the variant is responsible for an estimated 90% or more of new infections in the New York area, the Southeast, the Industrial Midwest and the Pacific Northwest.
Confirmed coronavirus cases in the UK have increased by 60% in one week as omicron overtook delta as the dominant variant there. Worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, the variant has been discovered in at least 89 countries.
In South Africa, experts were concerned that the large number of new infections would overwhelm the country’s hospitals, although omicron appears to cause milder disease, with significantly fewer hospital admissions, patients needing oxygen and deaths.
But then cases in Gauteng began to decline. After reaching 16,000 new infections on December 12, the province’s numbers have steadily dropped to just over 3,300 cases on Tuesday.
“It’s important. It’s very important,” Dr. Fareed Abdullah said of the fall.
“The rapid rise in new cases has been followed by a rapid decline, and it looks like we are seeing the beginning of this wave’s decline,” said Abdullah, who works in the COVID-19 ward at Pretoria’s Steve Biko Academic Hospital.
As another sign that South Africa’s omicron rise may be declining, a study by health professionals who tested positive for COVID-19 at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto shows a rapid rise and then a rapid fall in cases.
“Two weeks ago we saw more than 20 new cases a day, and now it’s about five or six cases a day,” Nunes said.
But, she said, it is still very early and there are several factors that need to be closely monitored.
South Africa’s positivity rate has remained high at 29%, up from just 2% in early November, indicating that the virus is still circulating among the population at relatively high levels, she said.
And the country’s holiday season is now underway, with many businesses shutting down for a month and people traveling to visit family, often in rural areas. This could accelerate the spread of omicrons across South Africa and to neighboring countries, experts said.
“As for the massive daily doubling that we saw a little over a week ago with huge numbers, it seems to have settled,” said Professor Veronica Uekermann, head of the COVID-19 response team at Steve Biko Academic Hospital.
‘But it is far too early to suggest that we have passed the top. There are too many external factors, including the movement during the holiday season and the general behavior during this period, ”she said, noting that the infections increased last year after the holiday.
It’s summer time in South Africa and many gatherings are outdoors, which can make a difference between the omicron-powered wave here and the waves in Europe and North America, where people tend to gather indoors.
Another unknown factor is how much omicron has spread among South Africans without causing disease.
Some health officials in New York have suggested that because South Africa appears to have experienced a rapid, mild wave of omicron, the variant may behave similarly there and elsewhere in the United States, but Nunes warns against jumping to those conclusions.
“Every environment, every country is different. The populations are different. The demographics of the population, the immunity is different in different countries,” she said. The population of South Africa, with an average age of 27, is more youthful than many Western countries, for example.
Most of the patients currently being treated for COVID-19 in hospitals are unvaccinated, Uekermann stressed. About 40% of adult South Africans have been vaccinated with two doses.
“All my patients in the intensive care unit are unvaccinated,” Uekermann said. “So our vaccinated people are definitely doing better in this wave. We have some patients who are very ill with severe COVID and those are unvaccinated patients.”
AP journalist Mogomotsi Magome in Johannesburg contributed.
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