SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — A person positive with a case of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 can be expected to spread the virus to 10 other people — and each of them to spread it to ten more people — and so on, and so on.
That’s according to Sanford Health’s vice president medical officer Dr. Michael Wilde. “We’ve always used that [idea of] if one person has it, you’ll give it to two people, or four, or ten, and we’re thinking [Omicron] is around that ten-ish type range,” he said. “It certainly is the most transmissible variant that we have recognized to date.”
Putting this into simple terms, if one person infects ten people, and each of them infects another ten, you would have 100 new infections stemming from the first. If each of those 100 then infects another ten, you now have 1,000, then 10,000, then 100,000.
How does this compare with the Delta variant which came before Omicron? According to Wilde, a person positive with Delta could be expected to infect around 5-6 people, meaning that Omicron is about twice as transmissible as Delta.
While it is undoubtedly more transmissible than Delta, the level of Omicron’s severity is still being determined. “We don’t know for sure right now,” said Wilde. “What we’re seeing is it’s probably less severe, but we don’t know if that is accounting for the immunity that’s out there.”
While it’s possible that omicron may produce a less severe infection in those affected, do not count on fewer severe infections overall.
“The general trend is that overall it causes less severe infections,” said Avera chief medical officer Dr. Kevin Post, “but that’s offset by the significant volume of cases because of how contagious it is.”
Due to the fact that the Omicron variant is so much more contagious than previous versions of the virus, more people will be infected.
“With Delta, we saw a higher number of people with COVID get hospitalized or have severe illness,” said Wilde. “With Omicron, we’re not seeing that, but we are seeing more people have COVID at one time — therefore there’s going to be more that are going to need to be hospitalized.”
Essentially, while a smaller percentage of those who get the Omicron variant may need hospitalization, the fact that so many more people are being infected means that the total number of people who will require hospitalization will likely be higher.
“With Omicron, there’s such a high volume of positive cases so even though less of a percent of those people are having severe illness and hospitalizations — the volume of it is driving up hospitalizations,” explained Post. “Higher volume will lead to increased hospitalizations.”
This increase in hospitalizations is reason for concern, as along with the public at large, healthcare workers are also being infected more often. This can affect hospital capacity.
“We’re seeing it in more of our staff,” said Wilde. “Capacity — it’s our space, it’s our equipment and it’s our people. Right now, we’re seeing our people more affected than we have with previous variants, and so our staff is getting a bit limited and therefore that also effects our capacity.”
This issue isn’t unique to Sanford.
“The medical community and us at Avera want to be there to serve our patients and the community,” said Post. “We need to have capacity in our health system — what that means is we really have to triage which patients we put where.”
Post says this entails ensuring critical patients are kept where the most intensive care is available, while less severe patients may have to be deferred to smaller communities. “Basically, getting the right patient in the right bed at the right place and at the right time is really going to be key as we move through these capacity issues,” he said.
The public also has a role in preserving hospital capacity. Wilde notes that Sanford’s internal contact tracing shows that the virus is not, for the most part, spreading within the hospital, but rather that workers are contracting COVID-19 while going about their lives outside of work.
To the question of how best the public can help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the answers sounded familiar.
“We know by far the best thing you can do is get vaccinated and get the booster,” said Wilde. “You may still get COVID — we do know your odds of getting severe COVID are very small if you have had the vaccine and have been boosted.”
As well as vaccination, other mitigation strategies should also not be ignored.
“This is a group effort,” said Post. “Right now we need everyone’s help so that we can take care of you and your family — avoid crowds, wash your hands, masking, distancing — all those things.”
On the subject of masks, Post also had additional information to provide.
“Cloth masks are not shown to be as effective as standard medical masks,” he said. This is due to the layers and the fibers in cloth masks being looser than those in the disposable surgical masks, which means cloth masks let more particles through.
Post also sought to clarify a point that he believes has been misunderstood.
“With Omicron being so contagious, we are seeing a high rate of breakthrough infections in those that have immunity,” he said. “The vaccine is still effective though — what we need to watch is the rate of severe illness, hospitalizations and death, and the vaccine plus the booster has been effective. No vaccine will prevent all infections, but it is our best line and front line of defense in preventing hospitalizations.”
A final message from Post was one of encouragement to any who may have been vaccinated and still caught COVID-19. “Don’t be discouraged. First of all, know you’ve done everything you can do — you did the right thing. Never feel like you failed or like you did something wrong.”