South Africa Says It ‘May Have Passed’ Omicron Coronavirus Peak

City of Tshwane's Special Infection Unit paramedics push a man inside an ambulance showing
PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images

South African public health officials announced Thursday that they believe the surge in Chinese coronavirus cases fueled by the omicron variant in the country is ending, leaving a record of lower hospitalizations and severe cases than previous waves.

South Africa was the first country to alert the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) to the discovery of a new Chinese coronavirus variant in late November. The decision to notify global health authorities resulted in Western countries, including the United States, imposing a travel ban on South African citizens and others in neighboring countries.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, who tested positive for coronavirus during the current wave of the outbreak, loudly protested the travel bans as unscientific and bigoted, particularly given that several European countries, including the Netherlands, revealed after the W.H.O. confirmed the existence of omicron that they had evidence of the variant circulating on the continent prior to its discovery in Africa. The European countries banning African travelers did not modify the restrictions to include fellow European countries following those revelations.

Ramaphosa notably boycotted the U.S. State Department’s “Summit for Democracy” this month to protest President Joe Biden’s travel ban against Africans. Biden lifted the ban with little fanfare last week.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the media after meeting with his Kenyan counterpart Uhuru Kenyatta in Pretoria, South Africa, Tuesday Nov. 23, 2021 . Kenyatta is in South Africa on a state visit to discuss political and economic issues. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the media in Pretoria, South Africa, Tuesday Nov. 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Themba Hadebe)

South African doctors treating omicron patients consistently told reporters around the world that their patients did not appear to be suffering from severe symptoms on a large scale and South African government officials eschewed the aggressive lockdowns they had implemented during initial local outbreaks of coronavirus.

A South African National Defence Force (SANDF) soldier searches for people not wearing face masks in a supermarket in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, on May 1, 2020, during a joint patrol by the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), the South African Police Service (SAPS) and the Johannesburg Metro Police Department (JMPD). - South Africa began to gradually loosen its strict COVID-19 coronavirus lockdown on May 1, 2020, after five weeks of restrictions. Social distancing and wearing masks in public and at workplaces will be mandatory. (Photo by Michele Spatari / AFP) (Photo by MICHELE SPATARI/AFP via Getty Images)

A South African National Defence Force (SANDF) soldier searches for people not wearing face masks in a supermarket in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, on May 1, 2020. (Photo by MICHELE SPATARI/AFP via Getty Images)

“All indicators suggest the country may have passed the peak of the fourth wave at a national level,” the South African government said in a statement following a special cabinet meeting Thursday, according to the Guardian. The statement emphasized, “While the Omicron variant is highly transmissible, there has been lower rates of hospitalization than in previous waves.”

Health officials in the country supported their conclusion with the fact that they had documented a nearly 30-percent drop in documented cases between the week ending on December 25 and the week before, a decrease representing nearly 38,000 cases. South Africa’s National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) followed up the good news with a report on Friday revealing it had found that, even among those hospitalized, coronavirus patients infected with the omicron variant were about 73 percent less likely to be treated for a severe case compared to those infected with the delta variant, the currently dominant variant around the world originating in India. This result is consistent with a study the same institution published two weeks ago concluding that coronavirus patients are “80 percent less likely to be hospitalized if they catch the omicron variant, compared with other strains,” Bloomberg reported at the time.

“Compared to delta infections in South Africa between April and November, omicron infections are associated with a 70 percent lower risk of severe disease,” NICD said at the time. “Early analyses suggest a reduced risk of hospitalisation among SGTF [omicron]-infected individuals when compared to non-SGTF [omicron] infected individuals in the same time period.”

Cases also appeared to be less severe less often with omicron patients, NICD said this week, when compared to those infected with the beta variant, a mutation that originated in South Africa and caused a significant spike in cases there but did not go on to dominate global cases. Scientists now believe the beta variant may have caused more severe disease than the original virus that originated in Wuhan, China, known as “alpha.”

The South African cabinet concluded that the data would allow them to remove a currently existing curfew and several other restrictions in place since March 2020, lowering the coronavirus threat level to its lowest setting. The remaining restrictions ban indoor gatherings of more than 1,000 people and outdoor gatherings of 2,000 people.

South Africa had already not increased restrictions in response to the discovery of omicron, which allowed Christians in the country to celebrate what international outlets described as a relatively normal Christmas.

“In Johannesburg, thousands … have turned out to enjoy the light displays that have filled the upmarket Melrose Arch shopping precinct with flashing reindeer, glittering giant teddy bears and glowing Christmas trees,” Reuters observed last week. Night clubs and other recreational locations attracted large crowds.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shortened its recommended quarantine period from ten days to five days this week. More than five days after Christmas Eve, South African officials still documented a decline in reported cases, suggesting the Christmas revelry did not have a negative effect on the country’s pandemic response.

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