Numbers matter | As Covid cases surge, hospitalisations and deaths don’t
Preventing hospitalisations prevents deaths – the eventual target of the pandemic for any country
More than 1 million people (1,083,948) were diagnosed with Covid-19 across the United States on Monday – the highest in a single day in any country in the world ever recorded – as the global pandemic continued to soar to new heights pushed by the latest wave of infections caused by the Omicron variant of Sars-CoV-2.
The previous record for the largest single-day increase in infections was set just four days ago on December 30, when there were 590,576 new cases. And the record before that was set on December 29 when there were 497,002 new infections. Even during the country’s brutal third wave in January 2021, daily cases only crossed the 300,000-mark only once in the world’s worst-hit nation.
A similar trend is visible across Europe as well.
The outbreak in the United Kingdom is currently is at its worst ever – there have been an average of more than 192,000 new cases detected every single day in the past week. This figure is more than three times the previous peak of 47,300 seen in the country (in January 2021).
Likewise, in France, there were a record 167,381 new cases of Covid-19 in the past week – more than twice the previous peak of 52,907 cases a day. In Spain, the current daily case average (around 105,000 new infections a day) is nearly four times the previous peak of around 25,000 daily cases. In Italy, the current seven-day average of new cases is at 102,000 – thrice the previous peak.
These figures highlight how the new waves being pushed by the highly transmissible Omicron variant are dwarfing case numbers seen even during the brutal Delta waves.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the current global wave is also at the worst level ever recorded throughout the two years of the pandemic. On Monday, there were more than 2.3 million new infections reported across the world (also a single-day record by a huge margin), according to a tally maintained by Our World In Data. Monday’s tally has pushed the global seven-day average of daily cases to a record 1.5 million cases a day – nearly twice the previous peak of around 800,000 cases a day (in April 2021, pushed by India’s second wave).
Hospitalisations and deaths far below peak
But most statistics other than case numbers paint a picture that isn’t as grim. While cases have been soaring across the world, on-the-ground numbers like hospitalisations have not yet come close to record levels. In the US, for instance, there are currently 95,012 Covid-19 patients admitted to hospitals, as per government data. This is around 30% lower than levels seen during the January 2021 wave in the country.
In the UK, according to data by the UK Health Security Agency, hospitalisations are 70% below the peak levels (also seen during the January 2021 wave), when 39,254 people were admitted due to Covid-19. In France, there are 19,600 Covid patients currently in hospitals, over 40% fewer than peak levels. In Spain there are 10,435 people occupying hospital beds, more than 60% below peak levels during the Delta wave, while in Italy, hospitalisations are 64% off the peak.
And while hospitalisations generally rise after a brief delay – generally about a week or so – from case rise in a region (this is because it takes on average a mean time of around a week of someone testing positive to needing hospitalisation, if at all), nearly all the countries mentioned above had far surpassed their previous case peaks a week ago.
Since hospitalisations haven’t been rising in these countries, a similar off-peak trend is visible in deaths (hospitalisation rates would generally precede a spike in death rate as Covid patients would generally be hospitalised for days before their deaths). In the US, despite the colossal daily case rate, average daily deaths are only 46% of the worst levels seen in January 2021. In the UK, daily deaths are merely 10% the volume of the worst-ever recorded rate. Similarly, daily deaths are only 19%, 7% and 18% of the highest death rates seen in France, Spain, and Italy, respectively.
This is even corroborated with data from South Africa, the first country to experience an Omicron wave. Despite the Omicron variant causing a record and a two-month-long surge in the case wave through November and December, deaths in the Omicron wave never came close to previous peaks. The seven-day average of daily deaths in South Africa currently stands at 69 – only 12% of the Delta peak there.
What this means for India
For countries like India, where the Omicron wave is starting to take off, these statistics present a welcome sign. New infections in the country are rising faster than they did even during the brutal second wave in April-May last year, data analysed by HT showed, indicating that the latest surge fuelled by the Omicron variant may follow the global trend in terms of cases.
But despite case numbers rising, the Omicron variant appears to be causing cases that need considerably fewer hospitalisations. Preventing hospitalisations, as seen in the countries mentioned above, prevents deaths – the eventual target of the pandemic for any country.