The Covid-19 infection rate during the fourth wave was as high as previous waves, however there were significantly fewer deaths and a smaller proportion of people required hospitalisation, according to clinical risk expert Dr Jacques Snyman.
“From scheme data, we could see there were many people testing positive, but few were so ill that they needed to be admitted to hospital,” says Dr Snyman, medical advisor to Health Squared Medical Scheme.
“Members who were vaccinated demonstrated significantly better protection against severe illness, and barely a handful, mostly older people with co-morbidities, were hospitalised in the fourth wave. This indicated that the vaccine is still providing strong levels of immunity and protection against severe disease even if infection was caused by the Omicron variant. Although breakthrough cases have been recorded, vaccination remains the best available means of protection.”
Dr Snyman points out that during the fourth wave, nationally, the percentage of people testing positive and hospital admissions peaked in mid-December and has been sharply declining since.
“In the first, second and third waves, some 20% of the patients hospitalised with Covid-19 passed away, but this reduced to around 10% of admitted patients in the fourth wave. This could suggest that despite the Omicron variant being more transmissible, this variant may be less virulent or ‘aggressive’ than the original, Beta or Delta variants that dominated previous waves.
“As more people choose to be vaccinated, fewer people are at risk of developing severe illness, and we should not underestimate the proportion of the population who were infected in previous waves – even if they did not necessarily experience symptoms – and may have developed natural immunity, providing some protection now.
“The fact that we have had very few lockdown restrictions in place as a country over the festive season could have contributed to the shortness of the wave. With many people experiencing milder symptoms, if any, the highly transmissible virus spread rapidly and began running out of hosts to infect equally quickly,” Dr Snyman suggests.
“All these factors may have had a role in shaping the pattern observed in the fourth wave, however we should not let our guards down because it is impossible to accurately predict what may happen in future, and how other variants may influence the course of the pandemic or a possible fifth wave.
“As is the case with the influenza virus, one year we may see a relatively mild flu season and the next a more virulent strain may emerge, leading to more aggressive disease. The same could happen with Covid-19, and it is therefore important to be vaccinated, remain vigilant and keep up the reasonable precautions that are in place, such as mask wearing, social distancing and avoiding crowded, poorly ventilated spaces.”