Omicron’s comin’ to town

Published December 31, 2021, 12:05 AM

by Raymundo W. Lo, MD, FPSP


Dr. Raymundo Lo

Coming round to the New Year celebrations, I went through our lab data in the Philippine Childrens Medical Center COVID-19 Testing Laboratory and saw that the trend was an increasing positivity rate for OFWs but that local cases were declining through the third to fourth weeks of December. I thought the OFWs were responsible for the rising trend that was being reported.

Then I reached out to my fellow pathologists for their labs’ data and was in for a shock. Their data also showed the same trend for returning travelers (three times increase week on week), including tourists, but an alarming increase in local cases (steady in first three weeks then five times increase from week three to week four). Subsequently, our lab and the other labs are now seeing the same trend, which show a higher rate of increase in local cases.

It all happened from the third to fourth weeks of December. This coincides with the easing of restrictions in the NCR in early December, but what’s very concerning is the fivefold increase. Mutation testing has been confined to returning residents to identify Omicron, which so far has turned up four cases. We’re not seeing Omicron in local cases simply because we’re not looking for them. Local cases were relatively stable and low in the first three weeks but suddenly exploded five times in the fourth week.

Could it be that the rapid spread we’re having is due to Omicron, considering it is five times more infectious than Delta? We need to be sequencing our local cases, especially those with clustering, to find out. But my guess is, we are already seeing Omicron spreading locally. The numbers suggest it, and the fact that our hospitals are not reporting a dramatic increase in COVID admissions may also point in that direction, with preliminary data abroad showing no corresponding increase in hospitalization amid exploding cases of Omicron.

Again, we can’t be complacent even with these in mind. The high vaccination rate in the NCR also has shown the protective effect of vaccines in preventing hospitalization, even as Omicron appears to be more infectious even in vaccinated individuals. It is the unvaccinated that we should worry about, with only 34 percent being fully vaccinated nationwide and mostly in the NCR.

If—no, make that when—Omicron spreads to the regions, we will see more and more severe cases and hospitalizations, which we can ill afford, considering the poorly equipped and manned hospitals there.

Unfortunately, COVID deaths will also increase among the elderly and those with co-morbidities, again mainly among the unvaccinated. Let’s pray this doesn’t come to pass.

We need to speed up our vaccination efforts and start boosting the susceptible populations. Now is not the time to relax our public health measures even as we celebrate the holidays. I may sound like a broken record (shows my age) in reminding all to keep their masks on (forget the face shield), distance themselves (hard to do in parties and shopping), not dining with others (what’s the fun in that?) and gathering in enclosed spaces (we love intimate spaces).

Prime example: I was invited to a Christmas gathering where all had to be vaccinated and at least antigen tested to be admitted. Since cases were low and these measures were in place, I decided to go to show my solidarity with my lab colleagues. I came with my vaccination card and PCR test result. But not all who came were checked for these. We all had a good time but lo and behold, three of our med techs tested positive five days after the event. Other attendees also tested positive. Since I was exposed, I got tested and it thankfully was negative. That was a lesson to remember.

Truly, Omicron is coming to town and we better watch out. Better yet, we better not cry. Let us all get vaccinated and boosted. I did. Have you?