Forewarned is forearmed

20 January 2022

 

By Dr Bryan Betty, College Medical Director

I would be quite happy to see the back of COVID-19. The fatigue, burnout, and frustration I am seeing within the general practice workforce, and indeed felt by all of us, is unrelenting. 
When Omicron does make its way into the community it will spread rapidly, and the likelihood of being exposed to it will be significantly higher. That is the reality. Just six weeks ago, Delta was all we were thinking about. Now 80 to 85 percent of cases in Australia, the US, and the UK are Omicron.

But let’s unpack the message we’re hearing that Omicron is milder than Delta. Like everything, there are two sides to every story. 

Yes, it is on an individual basis. We are seeing a reduction in hospitalisation rates, admission time is approximately half that of Delta, there is less chance of ending up in ICU, and lower mortality rates. Most people will experience mild cold symptoms because the virus tends to embed itself in the throat and nasal passages, not in the lungs. There will also be COVID-19 positive people who have no symptoms. 

However, looking at the bigger picture and the impact on the health system, Omicron is dangerous. Its infectious nature means we are seeing a huge surge in the volume of cases around the world. New South Wales went from 34,000 cases in the week of 25 December, to a staggering 215,000 cases only two weeks later, with 80 percent being the Omicron variant.

Putting this into perspective, even with the wide range of symptoms from mild to severe, many patients with COVID-19 will have multiple interactions with the health system, so it is easy to see how, alongside our regular healthcare delivery, this will put immense pressure on hospitals and general practice. Overseas, health systems are struggling to maintain staffing levels as workers are encountering COVID positive cases and having to home isolate.

It will also be important to further understand the effects of long COVID and plan for how the health sector can be resourced to support that. Long COVID is a condition where people continue to experience COVID-19 symptoms for a prolonged period – but are not infectious. Around 1 in 4 people will experience symptoms for more than a month, and 1 in 10 people are still experiencing symptoms three months on. 

There is no doubt the Omicron will be swift as it makes its way through the community, but at the end, along with our high vaccination rates, there will be potentially additional widespread herd immunity within the community. This may in fact, if we are lucky, put brakes on the pandemic. It could draw the threat of COVID-19 to a close. COVID-19 will not go away though, it will still circulate, it will be just less dangerous. 

My prediction is that the pandemic will end in six to twelve months, and we will be living in our new normal. COVID-19 will still be with us though, that’s a given but we can all play a part in helping to slow the spread of the virus in our communities. 

Get vaccinated. If you have been, get a booster. Full vaccination will give 30-40 percent protection against Omicron. Add in the booster shot and you have 70 to 80 percent protection. 

Let’s use what we have learnt about COVID over the past two years to our advantage and ensure we are as protected as possible for whatever COVID throws at us in 2022.

Forewarned is forearmed.