Friday, December 31, 2021

Fun With Numbers

      There's a lot of, "Hooray, we're saved," and even, "Now COVID-19 is just a common cold," right now, with the Omicron variant much more transmissible and apparently milder than previous forms of the virus.

      It's good news if true, but we don't know for sure -- and there are good reasons to not pop the cork on that particular bottle of champagne* just yet.

      But -- if it's easier to catch and the symptoms are not too bad, where's the problem?  The gotcha is, it's milder for most people.  Not for everyone.  Here in the Midwest, we're in the middle of a Delta surge (at least I hope it is the middle!) that has hospitals straining.  Over a dozen military doctors and nurses are helping out at Indianapolis hospitals† and they're short of beds, especially in the ICU.  So there's no margin.  Next, let's say that Omicron is three times as easy to catch as Delta, but only puts a third as many of the people who catch it in the hospital: that's not better; in terms of who needs hospital resources, it's just a wash.  Anything worse than that -- say it's four times as easy to catch and only puts a third as many of the infected in such a bad way that they need to be hospitalized -- and despite being milder, it nevertheless increases the number of people needing hospital care.

      That would be bad.  About the only thing it has going for it is that it would be over quickly -- but anyone needing any kind of hospital attention during the worst of it, COVID-19, broken bone, heart attack, whatever -- is going to be getting short shrift.  Hospital staff have become very good at triage but I can assure from personal experience that while a simple broken knee/thighbone can indeed be left to wait when the ER is busy with urgent cases, it's screamin' painful.

      People who were at high risk of having a bad case of COVID-19 due to age, obesity or medical condition still are at risk from Omicron.

      And we don't know exactly how much more transmissible Omicron is.  "Lots."  The lowest estimates said ten to twenty percent more, and have since been updated to just say "it's more than Delta;" the wildest extrapolate from lab measurement of how quickly it grows in your nose and say it's seventy times as easy to get.  The sober, informed guesses I'm finding say it is three to five times as transmissible as Delta.  I wouldn't bet any more on any of those than I could afford to lose, but three to five seem likely.

      And the other parameter?  How much less of a hospital risk is Omicron, anyway?  We don't know, especially for people in the United States.  The only actual numbers I can find say that in Scotland, about two-thirds fewer people infected with Omicron needed to be hospitalized, and in South Africa, around eighty percent fewer did, compared to people with Delta.  But those populations are not directly comparable; Americans average fatter than Scots and South Africans, and over a decade older than South Africans.  We're running the experiment now, in real time.

      So save that champagne.  There's a good chance you will get to drink it, but not for a month or two.
* That's in contrast to the bottle you have saved back to celebrate the New Year.   Have it primed and ready!  Good riddance, 2021!  2022 might be better or worse, but at least it will be different.
† The usual rejoinder is that any hospital problem must be due to staff lost over refusing COVID-19 vaccination.  I don't know about where you live, but at the massive IU Health multi-hospital complex here, out of 36,000 employees, 125 refused vaccination and no longer work there.  That's 0.3472 percent.  This is data worth finding from the horse's mouth, and what I have found so far is that the rumors of massive staff loss are way overcooked.

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