A noticeable drop in new COVID-19 cases in recent days may signal that South Africa’s dramatic Omicron-driven surge has passed its peak, medical experts say.
Daily virus case counts are notoriously unreliable, as they can be affected by uneven testing, reporting delays and other fluctuations, but they are offering a hint that Omicron infections may recede quickly after a ferocious spike.
After hitting a high of nearly 27,000 new cases nationwide on Thursday, the numbers dropped to about 15,424 on Tuesday.
In Gauteng province – South Africa’s most populous region, with 16 million people including the largest city Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria – the decrease started earlier and has continued.
Marta Nunes, senior researcher at the Vaccines and Infectious Diseases Analytics department of the University of Witwatersrand, told The Associated Press: “The drop in new cases nationally combined with the sustained drop in new cases seen here in Gauteng province, which for weeks has been the centre of this wave, indicates that we are past the peak.
“It was a short wave … and the good news is that it was not very severe in terms of hospitalisations and deaths.”
The significantly more transmissible Omicron quickly achieved dominance in South Africa.
An estimated 90 per cent of COVID-19 cases in Gauteng province since mid-November have been Omicron, according to tests.
In South Africa, experts worried that the sheer volume of new infections would overwhelm the country’s hospitals, even though Omicron appears to cause milder disease, with significantly less hospital cases, patients needing oxygen and deaths.
Then, cases in Gauteng started falling.
After reaching 16,000 new infections on December 12, the province’s numbers have steadily dropped to just over 3300 cases on Tuesday.
In another sign that South Africa’s Omicron surge may be receding, a study of health care professionals who tested positive for COVID-19 at Chris Hani Baragwanath hospital in Soweto shows a rapid increase and then a quick decline in cases.
“Two weeks ago we were seeing more than 20 new cases per day and now it is about five or six cases per day,” Ms Nunes said.
But, she said, it is still very early and there are several factors that must be closely watched.
South Africa’s positivity rate has remained high at 29 per cent, up from just 2 per cent in early November, indicating the virus is still circulating among the population at relatively high levels, she said.
And the country’s holiday season is now under way when people travel to visit family.
This could accelerate Omicron’s spread across South Africa and to neighbouring countries, experts said.
“In terms of the massive everyday doubling that we were seeing just over a week ago with huge numbers, that seems to have settled,” said Professor Veronica Uekermann, head of the COVID-19 response team at Steve Biko Academic Hospital.
“But it is way too early to suggest that we have passed the peak. There are too many external factors, including the movement during the holiday season,” she said.
Another unknown factor is how much Omicron has spread among South Africans without causing symptoms.
Ms Nunes cautions against jumping to conclusions about how Omicron may affect other countries.
“Each setting, each country is different. The populations are different. The demographics of the population, the immunity is different in different countries,” she said.
South Africa’s population, with an average age of 27, is more youthful than many western countries, for instance.
Most of the patients currently being treated for COVID-19 in hospitals are unvaccinated, Professor Uekermann emphasised.
About 40 per cent of adult South Africans have been inoculated with two doses.
“All my patients in ICU are unvaccinated,” Professor Uekermann said.
“So our vaccinated people are doing better in this wave, for sure.”