Omicron most transmissible COVID-19 variant but not threatening Singapore: Experts

Can move closer back to treating COVID-19 like other potentially deadly contagious respiratory infections, such as tuberculosis or influenza, experts said

COVID-19
Singapore detected 134 new Omicron infections on Tuesday, taking the tally to 885

Senior consultant at Singapore’s National University Hospital’s Division of Infectious Diseases Professor Dale Fisher said that Singapore is one of the earliest countries to accept that Omicron is not threatening nationally, because a large proportion of the population is vaccinated.

“Singapore is realising the strategy of COVID-19 resilience, such that as new variants arise, they can be dealt with quite easily,” Fisher was quoted as saying by The Straits Times, in an assessment of the latest variant from a number of health experts.

“Some countries are seeing overwhelmed hospitals again because Omicron is more transmissible and the baseline immunity of the population is still low,” Fisher said.

Professor Paul Tambyah, president of the Asia Pacific Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infection, said, “Now that we know that the Omicron variant is probably a lot less virulent than the previous dominant strains, we can move closer back to treating COVID-19 like other potentially deadly contagious respiratory infections, such as tuberculosis or influenza.”

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“Once a variant is identified, it will take some weeks to understand the outcomes. This was about slowing the entry and spread of Omicron, until we knew the disease was not escaping the vaccine’s protection and was not more severe,” Fisher said.

“But having to deal with Omicron after a long and hard battle with Delta, is damaging to people’s mental and physical well-being,” the experts said.

“As such, it makes sense to treat the Omicron variant as no different from other existing and past COVID-19 variants, since evidence has shown that the new strain is likely to be more transmissible but less severe than the Delta variant,” the experts said.

Omicron infections were allowed to recover from home or in community care facilities from Monday, after about a month of strict measures to reduce and slow down the spread of Omicron in Singapore.

Over the past month, those infected with Omicron were either isolated at the National Centre for Infectious Diseases or at dedicated facilities. Close contacts were quarantined for 10 days at designated facilities, and full contact tracing was carried out.

“If Singapore still continued to treat the Omicron variant differently, (such as) hospitalise infected patients, then we will be at risk of scoring an own goal in terms of filling up our healthcare facilities with relatively well patients,” said Associate Professor Hsu Li Yang, an infectious diseases expert at the National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health.

The school’s Vice-Dean of Research, Associate Professor Alex Cook, said, “I don’t think we could maintain strict contact tracing and isolation for long for Omicron anyway, and we would want to avoid revisiting the situation a few months ago, when we had to repeatedly revise the eligibility criteria for home isolation.”

Also read: Has Singapore’s ‘let’s live with COVID’ mantra strategy worked?

Professor Teo Yik Ying, Dean of NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, pointed out that the past month of containing Omicron allowed the country to roll out the boosters to more people and plan on expanding its ICU capacity.

It was announced on December 14 that Singapore is making plans to increase its ICU capacity to 500 beds from 280, to brace itself for an Omicron wave.

“The costs are definitely economic, and the overall mental well-being of our people, since we saw a suspension of our VTLs (vaccinated travel lanes) as well as a constant shadow cast over the economy by Omicron,” Prof Teo said.

The experts said that with Omicron’s higher transmissibility, it is likely that the Omicron wave would lead to more infections compared with the Delta wave over the past few months.

“But if severe disease, hospitalisations and ICU admissions do not escalate, transmissions of mild disease of any variant does not matter so much,” Fisher said. “We should not panic just because we see more cases. I do expect this to occur with Omicron and indeed with future variants and even seasonal fluctuations,” he added.

Cook said that the country should take stricter action to arrest the growth of Omicron only if the number of severe cases rises.

Professor Hsu’s main concern is about children below 12, who may be unvaccinated during the wave, given that the vaccination drive for upper primary students just started.

“School is due to start next week (after year-end holidays) and the majority may not complete their vaccination by the time our own Omicron wave peaks. We may see more hospitalisations among this group, even though the variant is not as deadly as Delta,” Hsu was quoted as saying by The Straits Times.

Also read: Virus can spread to heart, brain, other organs to prolong COVID: Study

Meanwhile, Singapore recorded 365 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, pushing the infection count to 278,409.

Out of the 365 cases, 134 new Omicron infections were detected on Tuesday, taking the tally to 885.

As of Monday, 91 per cent of Singapore’s eligible population have completed their full vaccination regimen under the national vaccination programme.

The figure has been updated to include children aged five to 11, after vaccination for this age group started on Monday. About 38 per cent of the total population have received their vaccine booster (third) shots.

(With inputs from Agencies)

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