Cambridge epidemiologists make the case: Omicron variant not a milder strain of Covid

Harvard’s Bill Hanage co-authored a recent New England Journal of Medicine article on the omicron variant of Covid. (Photo: Harvard Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics)

The highly contagious omicron variant of Covid-19, which has sent cases to unprecedented heights in Cambridge and around the world, is unlikely to be inherently milder than other iterations of the virus as many believe, said a Harvard University epidemiologist who lives in Cambridge and has advised the city. Instead, fewer people with omicron could end up in hospital or die because more of them are immune to previous disease or vaccination, protecting them from serious illness and death. dead, William Hanage of Cambridge and Roby Bhattacharyya said in an article published Wednesday in the English New Journal of Medicine.

Hanage is an epidemiologist at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and Bhattacharyya is an infectious disease researcher and physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and an associate member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

The news came as the city announced it would be making 10,000 rapid home test kits for Covid and 20,000 high-quality KF94 masks available to the public from Saturday at the Main Library, Hotel town halls and several fire stations. Saturdays – with pickups from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. – is the only time Cambridge Main Library, 449 Broadway, Mid-Cambridge, is included in the locations; other sites will be supplied Monday through February 11, most from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and are listed here.

The supplies are for people in need who live or work in Cambridge and may have difficulty accessing these supplies, the city said.

Hanage was a member of the city’s Expert Advisory Group, a group of scientists and others advising city officials on handling Covid-19 from April 2020, when the pandemic began, until June 2021. Two years ago, he caught the attention of city councillors. grappling with a new and mostly unknown virus by warning them bluntly at a council meeting: “This town should expect substantial disruption for a potentially long period of time during the period of the most intense transmission.” The virus could cause “dozens of deaths” in Cambridge without transmission control and schools and workplaces may have to close, he said in a prescient warning.

The challenge now is to get everyone vaccinated and stimulated, Hanage said. The belief that the omicron is less virulent hurts that effort, although “the biggest contract we have is to stimulate the elderly,” he said Wednesday. “Even Cambridge didn’t do as good a job as it could have done.”

The most recent vaccination figures for Cambridge, as of January 27, show that 73% of residents aged 65 and over have received a booster. That’s better than the city’s overall recall rate of 43%, but it also includes children under 5 who aren’t yet eligible. And that leaves more than 3,500 elderly residents without support.

Hanage said the goal the city ‘should aim for when it comes to vaccination is not ‘better than neighboring communities’ but ‘the best.’ Period.’ If only other communities followed suit, we would have a virtuous circle of competition City manager Louis A. DePasquale often compares Cambridge’s performance with other major cities.

The New England Journal of Medicine article said statistics from South Africa, where omicron was first reported, suggested to some that the variant was benign because hospitalizations and deaths were not increasing. not as the virus spread. The article said the drop in hospitalization and death rates was likely due to the fact that many South Africans had been vaccinated or previously infected, boosting their immunity. And omicron was able to cause many breakthrough infections and reinfections, attacking people who had strong immune systems, the authors said.

The effects of Omicron

Meanwhile, in just four days since January 29, the city has reported four additional Covid-19 deaths among residents, including three on February 1. It comes after months last fall when the number of Covid-19 deaths was flat, only to start rising in early 2022.

The death toll began to rise shortly before Cambridge Public Health announced that the startling increase in cases of the highly contagious omicron variant had peaked, and that the number of cases and rates fall.

The rise in deaths may not be so surprising, as experts point out that deaths are lagging behind infections, but the numbers are conflicting. The city does not say whether residents who died from the virus were vaccinated or had other health conditions that made them more vulnerable to Covid. At least two of those who died were in their 50s, unusually young.

The number of Covid-19 cases in the city’s nursing homes and assisted living centers has also increased, but not all residents who have died from Covid since Jan. 1 were living or working in a care facility. long term. Yet 77 of the 139 deaths since the start of the pandemic in early 2020 have been residents or employees of long-term care sites.

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