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Why Omicron poses new threats to hospitals even if symptoms of new Covid variant appear less severe

As hospitalisations from Covid-19 continue to rise, the share of these hospitalisations that end up occupying mechanical ventilators beds has fallen precipitously, according to data analysed by i.

As of Tuesday, the seven-day average of mechanical ventilator beds occupied as a proportion of Covid-19 cases has fallen to 9.88 per cent, even as record numbers of Covid-19 cases are registered with 117,093 new Covid-19 cases in England today.

This comes as various studies have found the variant to be milder, including the most recent one from the UK Health Security Agency, which found that people with the variant are 50 to 70 per cent less likely to go to hospital.

But although the variant appears less severe, experts are cautioning that the effect of the variant on the NHS may not be seem for a while as Omicron makes it way to older age groups.

Professor Azeem Majeed, professor and department head of primary care and public health at Imperial College, said: “I think it’s too early to say the Omicron wave is not that serious because the case numbers are so high we probably need to wait a few weeks as it spreads to older age groups.

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“Most people are being quite optimistic about this but probably a bit too premature. Let’s see how we are in three or four weeks time.”

Crucially, as first reported in the i, the 400 hospitalisations barrier that ministers and scientific advisers were monitoring appeared to have not been broken in London during the Christmas break, reached 390 on the 23 December.

Hospitalisations are currently well below the level they were this time last year during the Alpha variant wave but the Omicron wave is still in its early stages and it’s unclear what problems it could pose to the NHS.

At the height of the Alpha wave in England last year there were 28,105 new Covid-19 cases and 1,592 hospital admissions. So far during the Omicron the number of new cases has far outstripped this, but admissions have yet to hit those heights.

A growing number of Covid-19 hospitalisations are “Covid-19 incidental” as patients aren’t admitted for Covid-19 but for other ailments – then either test positive for Covid-19 in the hospital or contract the disease while in hospital.

As of 21 December, 1,197 people were admitted to hospital for Covid-19, with 405 people admitted for other ailments and subsequently testing positive for Covid-19.

Professor Majeed said: “Because vaccination rates are so high now, the vaccines will suppress the symptoms. so you will expect people to have milder infections than previously. So people are being picked up accidentally in the usual screening process.

“It means you have to very careful because this variant does spread more easily than other variants, as lots of people will come in who aren’t suspected to have Omicron initially and these people may then spread it onto either staff or other patients.”

While it is encouraging that a proportion of these cases aren’t strictly Covid-19 admissions, it does pose unique challenges to hospitals that will have to ensure patients isolate to avoid cross-infection, which will increase the pressure on hospitals that are already at full stretch.

One of the most significant challenges that Omicron poses for hospitals, and the larger economy, is growing staff absences. as staff who contract Omicron are forced to isolate for 7 days.

The isolation period was recently shortened from 10 to 7 days to help to mitigate the issues.

Even with the changes, staff absences in the NHS have risen dramatically, jumping by 38 per cent in the week up to the 23 of December.

According to Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, “many chief executives are saying that, on current evidence, they think omicron related staff absences may be a greater challenge than the number of omicron related severely ill patients they have to treat”.



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