Statistician: Peak of Omicron wave likely here soon

Krista Fischer.
Krista Fischer. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

The spread of the Omicron variant of Covid may soon reach its peak, University of Tartu statistician Professor Krista Fischer says. She also urged caution in lifting any restrictions, in an interview given to ERR which follows.

There has been a lot of talk lately about easing restrictions, but what are the forecasts for us in the next two weeks?

I've been looking at whether the disease is really less severe, or whether the reduced burden on hospitals can be explained in other terms.

If we consider the probability of requiring hospitalization among different age groups, then it is not much lower and, particularly among the unvaccinated elderly, it is much at the same level as before. There were very few elderly people among those infected.

Why is this the case, and why is the virus not reaching the elderly? Is it a feature of the variant that it does not affect the elderly so readily, well at least immunologists have not told me that this has been the case.

In any case, it is concerning that if the virus spreads even more strongly among the elderly, where we have more than 70,000 unvaccinated people over the age of 60, the situation may not be so easy in hospitals. 

It is very difficult to predict whether the age distribution will change or not.During previous waves, it has always been the case that at first the virus spreads very quickly among young people, and then starts to reach the elderly via families. 

This wave has been going on for some time now, yet it has not yet reached the elderly age group. Based on the knowledge I have, I cannot forecast that it will reach the elderly, but it cannot be ruled out.

The Health Board (Terviseamet) has stated that up to 10,000 new cases a day are forecast. Are we at the top of the so-called crest of infections this week, or can it still grow?

The growth may continue, although, for example, 20 percent of schoolchildren in Lääne County have been infected in the last five months. 

Elsewhere, the percentage is very high. 

While those who catch the omicron variant once will not get re-infected, it seems that the recovery from previous strains does not provide special protection.

At some point, the viral spread must begin to subside, as the virus can no longer infect anyone or find people so quickly. 

This peak may be here soon, but probably not yet.

If testing policies change quickly, we won't be able to see exactly when the peak will come. We can see a fall in the number of positive tests, but we cannot see if the infection has decreased.

How big of a change might it bring if the state at some point admits that we will no longer be able to test everyone? Let's use the rapid tests, and people being told that if you have a runny nose or a cough, and the rapid test is positive, stay home.

There are many "buts" here. As a statistician, I am a little concerned about the quality of the data, but it is clear that some sensible decisions need to be made. If the cost-effectiveness of testing is no longer good, then something should be decided, and also how to get an overview of the cost of the epidemic, the changes in infections.

For example, creating a system for recording rapid tests, even through GPs, or maintaining (PCR) testing for certain age groups. Some form of testing must be maintained, then it could be clear which aspects of the data is being treated as before, so that we can get information and make predictions based on something, whether there are any risks of congestion or disruption.

Dr Arkadi Popov, the head of the West Tallinn Central Hospital (LTKH), told "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) on Sunday night that he could wait a few more weeks before easing the restrictions. On the same show, [former government Scientific Council chief] Irja Lutsar, however, said that as of January 11, the conditions in the hospitals were already the same as now, meaning that now is the time to change the restrictions.

I agree rather with Arkadi Popov. We do not have many restrictions, mainly the checking of coronavirus certification. 

At the same time, this is one point of view, since the Covid passport no longer shows much safety against infection is provided where a person has had two doses, but no booster dose. 

In this latter case, the chances of getting infected and spreading the virus are similar to those of an unvaccinated person. 

This may slightly limit the number of visitors to different facilities, and thus keep the risk of infection lower, so there is some benefit to Covid certification.

The question is how to change the restrictions so that the risk of infection does not rise, so that people do not accumulate more than has been the case so far, because we do not want the infection to spread even more rapidly. 

But here are the areas to discuss where which restrictions are justified, and which are not. 

The general message is that it is not possible to say that there are no problems in hospitals at the moment, precisely because we do not know how quickly this (need for hospital treatment - ed.) can increase.

Until now, Estonia has followed the principle that everything depends on the situation with hospital treatments, and restrictions have also been established based on this indicator. 

What might be the figure of hospitalizations now be which would provide people with evidence that a major crisis is now over?

The peculiarity of Omicron is that there are fewer people admitted to hospital due to severe Covid, but there are very many who become infected in hospital or go to hospital for some other reason and end up becoming Covid-positive. 

This is also a problem because the virus cannot be allowed to spread freely within a hospital. 

If a weak person gets the virus, it can be fatal for them, although the course of the omicron runs more mildly.

During the course of the pandemic, I have considered that we cannot take hospitals as the only criterion. It remains to be seen what other problems lie ahead. 

As a result of this discussion and thinking, these may not be considered serious problems, but we can still see the rest of the world that if the infection is very widespread, many jobs will be in trouble because there are not enough workers. 

These persistence problems need to be monitored and may in some circumstances be a criterion for taking action to prevent the spread of infection.

When could the moment come when omicron tops out and the situation begins to calm down?

It seems that this is happening so fast that it may be a matter of a few weeks. As Arkadi Popov said, there are still a few weeks to go. I don't think there should be this nonsense anymore. I'm more optimistic.


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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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