South Africa’s omicron fourth wave has peaked

South Africa has crested the fourth wave of Covid-19 infections driven by the spread of the omicron variant.

CSIR researcher Ridhwaan Suliman said that the country passed the peak in about half the number of days it took to get past previous waves.

South Africa’s new daily infections peaked in the 20,000s in early December. The latest stats show that the country had 15,424 new cases on Tuesday, 21 December.

Despite remaining on adjusted level one lockdown, South Africa’s hospital admissions only reached 8,019 last week.

This is compared to the 14,504 weekly hospitalisations during the third wave’s peak, when the country was still under Alert Level 4 lockdown.

Actuarial scientist Louis Rossouw said the 7-day moving average Covid-19 cases reached a peak on 12 December of 22,000 cases per day.

“R in South Africa (by cases) is below 1,” Rossouw said, adding that the reproduction number (R) is above 1 in a few provinces.

The reproduction number essentially shows how many people someone with Covid-19 infects before they are no longer shedding the virus.

When R is below one the virus is no longer spreading to more people than it infects, which means the number of active Covid-19 cases will decrease rather than increase.

South Africa had significantly looser restrictions during the fourth wave of infections than during the third.

However, this was because hospital admissions remained well within our healthcare system’s capacity.

Medical researchers have said that there may be several reasons hospital admissions remain relatively low:

  1. Omicron doesn’t cause as severe a case of Covid-19 as Delta.
  2. A combination of vaccinations and infection from previous variants has spared most South Africans who catch Omicron from worse symptoms.
  3. Increased hospitalisations could be lagging behind new cases due to how rapidly this wave peaked.

An Imperial College London study contradicted the first possible explanation. It found no evidence to suggest that Covid-19 from the omicron variant was less severe than the delta variant.

While the data suggests that South Africa’s Omicron-driven fourth wave may be less severe than previous coronavirus outbreaks, researchers warned that South Africans must not let their guard down.

National Institute of Communicable Diseases hospital surveillance team researcher Waasila Jassat explained that Covid-19 still presents with a spectrum of symptoms.

People still get severe symptoms and die, and some report suffering “long Covid”.

For this reason, people should vaccinate, continue to wear their masks, and avoid large gatherings, Jassat said.

Dr Joe Phaahla, Minister of Health

South Africa was put under level four lockdown in June 2021 and moved to adjusted level one lockdown in September — where we have remained.

Under level four lockdown South Africans could not leave their homes between the hours of 21:00 and 04:00 unless performing an essential service.

All gatherings were banned except for funerals, at which a maximum of 50 people were allowed.

Facilities such as gyms and restaurants were required to remain closed. However, restaurants could still sell takeaway food and non-alcoholic beverages for off-site consumption.

In comparison, adjusted level one lockdown shifted the curfew to 00:00 and allowed restaurants to serve patrons on-site food and alcoholic beverages. Before the elections, gathering sizes were also increased to 750 people indoors and 2,000 people outdoors.

Despite the worries of stricter lockdown restrictions following the emergence of the omicron variant, South Africa will be lockdown-free for the festive season.

Health minister Joe Phaahla reportedly pushed the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) to keep South Africa at lockdown Alert Level 1, when several cabinet ministers wanted to impose stricter lockdown measures.

This means that South Africans will be able to enjoy the beach and other public amenities over the December holidays — for now, at least.

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South Africa’s omicron fourth wave has peaked