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Omicron Surge Spurs Lockdowns, Testing Pushes

Lockdowns, social restrictions, mask mandates, and industry closures. If you’re having flashbacks to March 2020, you’re not alone. The Omicron variant of COVID-19 is spreading rapidly across the world, triggering returns to early-pandemic restrictions to try to limit the spread while scientists and healthcare providers assess Omicron’s risks, how much health systems can withstand, and whether vaccines and other treatments are effective.

When Omicron was first detected in November, scientists warned that it would take at least two weeks to start measuring its severity. There are some mixed findings at this point, though. Recent studies out of the United Kingdom indicate that Omicron-caused infections do not appear to be less severe than infections caused by the Delta variant.

“For vaccines available in the UK, effectiveness against symptomatic Omicron infection ranged from 0 percent to 20 percent after two doses, and from 55 percent to 80 percent following a booster dose,” Reuters reported. The study estimated that the odds of reinfection with Omicron are 5.4 times higher than with Delta.

However, a South African study and data on hospitalizations and deaths suggest that the risk of severe disease is lower with Omicron than previous variants, Al Jazeera reported. South Africa saw a noticeable drop in new COVID-19 cases over the past week, potentially signaling that Omicron has passed its peak in the country.

The rate of spread seems significantly faster as well. According to the World Health Organization, the number of COVID-19 cases involving Omicron double every 1.5 to three days in countries with community transmission, and as of 21 December, it had been detected in 106 countries. Omicron even spreads rapidly in countries with high vaccination rates or where a large portion of the population has recovered from COVID-19, according to the Associated Press.

To make matters worse, monoclonal antibodies—one of the most effective treatments in keeping high-risk patients from needing hospitalization, according to The New York Times—might be less effective against Omicron. Two out of the three treatments available do not appear to affect the Omicron variant, and the third is scarce; some hospitals are already running out.

On a hopeful note, though, there are two antiviral pills in the United States headed for regulatory approval. The pills are likely to stave off severe illness in high-risk patients, and one of the treatments has been found to be highly effective—likely against Omicron as well as other variants.

“We can see another storm coming,” said Hans Kluge, WHO’s European head, in a news conference. Omicron was “pushing already stretched health systems further to the brink.”

In London, the number of COVID-19 cases climbed 30 percent in a week, and Denmark is recording more than 9,000 new cases daily, The New York Times reported. Northern European nations are returning to sharp restrictions in response while southern ones are adopting a “wait and see” posture.

In the United States, officials are doubling down on testing, not lockdowns. President Joe Biden announced that the federal government will purchase 500 million rapid COVID-19 tests to be distributed to Americans for free starting in January, and 1,000 military medical personnel were activated to support overwhelmed hospitals, according to Reuters. Omicron accounts for 73 percent of all new COVID-19 cases in the United States—up from less than 1 percent at the start of December.