The highly contagious variant is continuing to drive up COVID-19 cases across the world, with 18 million logged last week — up from 15 million the week earlier, the WHO said Tuesday.
While some countries are seeing cases peak, giving hope the worst of the wave is starting to end, it shouldn’t be seen as a sign that countries are in the clear, said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.
“For many countries, the next few weeks remain really critical for health workers and health systems,” Tedros said.
“I urge everyone to do their best to reduce risk of infection so that you can help take pressure off the system.”
The Omicron variant, which was first detected in late November, is responsible for a significant resurgence of COVID-19 acround the world.
It is crowding out the Delta variant as the globally dominant strain of the virus, driving up infections and hospitalizations in countries like Canada. It has also put a strain on testing demand, forcing governments to triage tests, resulting in an under-reporting of daily infections.
Canadian health officials have projected the country’s Omicron wave could peak this month at 170,000 cases a day, while hospital admissions could also peak at 2,000 a day.
“While Canada could see a sharp peak and decline in cases in the coming weeks, given disease activity far exceeding previous peaks, even the downside of this curve will be considerable,” said Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, last week.
“With several weeks of very intense activity expected to come, we need to do our best now to limit the size and impact of the Omicron surge in order to maintain the health system and critical functions of society.”
Multiple studies have shown that while Omicron is highly contagious and can reduce vaccine effectiveness against infection, overall it is less severe than other strains.
But according to Tedros, the variant still poses a risk to those who are vulnerable, including the unvaccinated.
“Make no mistake, Omicron is causing hospitalizations and deaths, and even the less severe cases are inundating health facilities,” he said.
“The virus is circulating far too intensely with many still vulnerable.”
‘We need to end the crisis that we are currently in’
Throughout the pandemic, many countries have taken varying approaches to how they deal with COVID-19.
Some countries have had less transmission and fatalities than others, but the latest resurgence might be a blow to morale.
While cases are increasing around the world, deaths are holding steady at roughly 45,000 per week, said Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, COVID-19 technical lead with the WHO.
Still, that figure shouldn’t be so high because many countries have the “tools at hand” needed to reduce COVID-19’s impact, she said.
Van Kerkhove is calling on countries not only to stick to public health measures like distancing, mask wearing and proper ventilation throughout the Omicron wave, but to enhance public health systems further for future variants of concern.
“Now is the time to strengthen that, because if we don’t do this now, we will move on to the next crisis,” she said.
“We need to end the crisis that we are currently in, and we can do that at the present time.”
Van Kerkhove added countries must also improve surveillance systems so new variants can be better detected.
“This won’t be the last variant of concern, so now is the time to support and invest in the surveillance systems that we have around the world so that we can detect these variants, we can assess these variants … so we can improve the advice we give at a global level that is implemented at a local level,” she said.
“There’s a lot to be hopeful for, but we have to put in this work. Now is not the time to abandon the strategy, abandon the science and abandon what we know works.”