While we were enjoying the festive season, something lingered in the backs of all our minds. Omicron was an unexpected and unwelcome guest, casting dark shadows on our celebrations and leaving our NHS in a precarious position.
While Omicron is less likely to lead to hospitalisations, healthcare staff absences are creeping up every day. The pressures on the system may be different this winter, but they remain just as demanding. The challenge now is predicting what will come next.
Through a combination of NHS COVID-19 hospital activity data, Google mobility trend data, and their advanced analytics, London-based RwHealth has forecast daily hospital admissions up to March 1st 2022. The potential forecasts vary, with a large part of this variation owing to the difference in public behaviours. The overall verdict is unsurprising: masks have massive potential to change the outcome of the coming months.
Google’s mobility data tracks how people move around, delivering insight into where people go – and thus how many people they may come in contact with. This data forms a vital piece of the puzzle; public behaviour has a vast impact on the spread of COVID-19, and Omicron is no exception.
With children returning to school, people returning to work, and testing advice changing, this data comes at a pivotal moment in time; the UK sits at a critical juncture where the daily decisions made by the general public can make all the difference.
RwHealth found that enforced mask-wearing could lead to a 7.5% decrease in transmission, and thus a 7.5% reduction in the number of cases. Making face coverings mandatory in most indoor public places and on public transport was an incredibly positive move, but the mask-free nature of hospitality venues continues to throw a spanner in the works.
Secondary school pupils being required to wear masks in class might help the UK lean towards one of the lower case rate scenarios that RwHealth’s Data Science Platform predicted. Students being required to wear masks has been met with a mixture of relief and rage across social media, with #NoMasksInClass quickly trending on Twitter and kicking off an incredibly divided debate. Interestingly, most of those opposing masks on the platform were adults, not the children themselves. In fact, multiple youngsters stepped in to say that they are more comfortable wearing masks and being around others doing the same.
While Omicron’s symptoms are milder than Delta’s, the transmission rate is considerably higher, resulting in immense disruption across the NHS and beyond.
Despite its milder nature, Omicron has led to climbing hospital admissions through the sheer number of infections: in the week ending 31 December 2021, an estimated 3,270,800 people in England had COVID-19 – equating to around 1 in 15 people. While a smaller percentage of those infected with Omicron end up in hospital compared to those with Delta, that is still a large number of people when case rates are so spectacularly high.
Hospitalisations themselves are not the only risk that Omicron poses to the healthcare sector. Huge numbers of NHS staff are off sick or having to isolate, leading multiple hospitals to declare critical incidents over staff shortages with absences reaching 24,632 across NHS England on 26 December 2021.
Omicron’s impacts are not confined to the healthcare sector. The rise in cases has led to a shortage of LFTs and PCR tests in multiple locations across the country, making it difficult for people to return to work and leaving many potential contacts isolating as they err on the side of caution. Many firms are facing absence rates as high as 25%, paying overtime to already overworked staff in order to keep operations running. The school year is also being disrupted by COVID-19 once again – not due to lockdowns this time, but steep absences among teaching staff.
What can we do?
The overall picture painted by RwHealth’s predictions is not entirely bleak. Their forecasts have highlighted the huge potential impact individual actions can make. While we cannot alter the transmissibility of Omicron itself, the simple act of wearing a mask can make a huge difference in the coming months.
Getting booster jabs remains a key step in the ongoing battle against Omicron, as does continuing to get tested whenever necessary and possible.
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