JOHANNESBURG — South Africa’s health minister has confirmed omicron is the most transmissible coronavirus variant yet but does not appear as severe. The minister, Dr. Joe Phaala, says previous concerns that omicron was hospitalizing more children appear to be unfounded.
More than 22,000 people tested positive with COVID-19 Thursday in South Africa, double the number of daily cases seen last week.
Phaala said Friday the omicron variant discovered last month is driving the country’s fourth wave.
He says omicron has become the dominant variant, spreading more rapidly and overtaking the delta variant.
“The reproductive number of the virus, which shows how many people are likely to be infected by one person is currently 2.5, which is higher than it was at any prior point in the pandemic. So, whether we speak about the alpha, the beta, the delta, none of them had even reached anywhere close to the two,” he expressed.
Omicron also appears to be infecting people who have been vaccinated or previously sick with COVID-19.
More than 450 people were hospitalized Thursday.
But Phaala says early data suggests omicron may not be as severe as previous variants.
“A lower proportion of patients admitted in the fourth wave — currently this is the fourth wave — had severe disease as compared to pace admitted in a similar timeframe in the second and third waves.”
Severe disease is defined as people needing hospitalization, oxygen or ventilators or dying from the virus.
Officials expressed concern last week over an increase in children being hospitalized.
Phaala says it now appears that, like previous variants, omicron is not causing severe respiratory symptoms in children.
“Early data from hospital surveillance, also reports from public and private hospitals, indicate that admissions are largely in children admitted for other reasons, and then tested positive and for very short durations.”
For average patients, the ministry says anecdotal reports from doctors describe symptoms of omicron as ranging from a scratchy throat, cough and fever to diarrhea and vomiting.
More severe cases are mainly among the unvaccinated, who make up at least 70% of hospitalizations.
That is reinforcing the government’s message to the public to get inoculated.
Dr. Michelle Groome is with the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. She notes that “the majority of admissions are in unvaccinated individuals. I think we really know which public health measures are working in terms of the vaccination, proper wearing of masks, social distancing and limits in particular large gatherings.”
Still, more than half of South African adults have yet to receive their first dose. Phaala had a clear message Friday to those who refuse vaccinations.
“We would want to urge them not to listen to what they read on social media, all the anti-vax stories, protect yourselves by coming forward and taking the vaccine now.”
Amid the spread of omicron, South Africa is now approving booster shots.
Rollout could begin as early as next week for the Johnson & Johnson vaccines, while Pfizer boosters will be available starting December 28.