Responding to Omicron

| Updated on: Jan 06, 2022
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Decisions should be based on a dashboard that tracks hospitalisations, ICU and fatalities

As India’s daily case count from Covid’s third wave begins a vertical climb, Central, State and city administrations seem to be on an overdrive, re-imposing curfews and mobility restrictions deployed in the first two waves of the pandemic. The Centre has recently issued an order asking States and Union Territories to consider ‘strategic interventions’ such as night curfews, regulating gatherings, curtailing numbers in marriages and funerals, and curbing employees at offices and industries, apart from localised containment measures, should the test positivity rate in a district top 10 per cent or oxygen and ICU bed occupancy in hospitals shoot up beyond 40 per cent. State and city administrations are now announcing night curfews and weekend lock-downs, shutting down schools, colleges, theatres and gyms, and asking private firms to operate at 50 per cent capacity, even before such thresholds are breached. Stricter lock-downs are threatened if the case count escalates. But given that Omicron — new variant suspected to be behind this wave — is exhibiting materially different characteristics from predecessors, the Centre and States need to recalibrate their responses. Draconian lock-downs that inflicted so much damage on livelihoods and the economy during earlier waves of Covid, shouldn’t be the default response.

Evidence so far from the US, UK, South Africa and other geographies where the Omicron-fuelled wave is in advanced stages suggests that this variant is at least three times as transmissible as Delta, but manifests through very different symptoms, with fewer patients needing oxygen support or critical care. When daily infections in US peaked during the Delta wave, nearly half of the affected needed hospitalisation; in the ongoing Omicron wave, hospitalisations have dwindled to less than a third and fatalities remain subdued. It is early days yet to tell if India’s third wave (where both the Delta and Omicron variants seem to be at large) will mimic this experience. A report in this newspaper on Thursday revealed that despite case counts doubling every 2-3 days in the metros, ICU and oxygen beds remain largely vacant, with only 3-7 per cent of cases hospitalised (20 per cent in the Delta wave).

The point is not to panic but make considered, evidence-based decisions. We need prompt testing and isolation, quick contact tracing, and prevention of large gatherings, along with strict imposition of wearing masks. The Centre and States must create a new dashboard to track hospitalisation rates, ICU and oxygen-bed occupancies, and fatalities (as opposed to just test positivity rate and number of cases), to make more scientific decisions on lock-downs. If most cases turn out to be mild — and that seems to be the evidence till now — the strategy should be to quarantine the infected in their homes while keeping economic activity going. As evidences from South Africa, US and UK suggest, the Omicron variant is super infectious but not as harmful as the Delta one. Policymakers need to factor this into their calculus while designing strategies to manage the third wave.

Published on January 06, 2022

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