Post #1358: A brief update on the South African Omicron wave

Posted on December 20, 2021


Things just keep getting more interesting in South Africa.  Today’s new case data not only confirm that their outbreak has peaked, it sure looks like Omicron is receding as fast as it grew. 

Which, to me, makes absolutely no sense, based on what I think I know about models of epidemics.  Could be I just don’t understand the math.  Or it could be that everybody is going to be as surprised by this as I am.

In any case, it is what it is.  It’s starting to look like Omicron in South Africa took three-and-a-half weeks from first case to peak.  And now it’s starting to recede at an equally rapid rate.

Below, the peak is now clearly visible in the three-month view of daily new COVID-19 cases in South Africa.  That was clear yesterday.  What’s new today is how sharp the decline in cases appears.

The six-month graph below gives you a much clearer view of it.  You can clearly contrast the shape of the last COVID-19 wave (left) with the shape of the Omicron wave (right).  The prior wave was a broad hilltop, the current (Omicron) wave  certainly appears to be shaping up to be a sharp point.

And just to round out the story, the Omicron deaths that weren’t appearing in South Africa, still aren’t.  Here’s the same data source, showing the six-month chart of COVID-19 deaths.

This information all comes from the lowest common denominator of data in the modern world, Google.  If you’re on a computer and you Google “South Africa COVID”, Google will supply you with the graphs you see above.  They’re right at the top of the search page.  They are instantly available to anyone who will look for them.

My point is, it’s not like this is a secret.  It’s the most common of common knowledge.

And yet, as I have discussed several times in recent posts, below you see my best depiction of what you’re going to hear from professional public health sources, regarding the possibility that the Omicron outbreak is both self-liming and results in vastly lower average case severity than Delta.


You are going to hear every conceivable version of “that might be due to something else”.  Followed by a few mumbles about vaccination rates, prior infections, time lags in the data, international comparisons are fraught with potential error, and so on.  You’re never going to hear any public official clearly state that Omicron appears to be substantially less virulent than Delta.

Because if they do that, the public will slack off. 

And, to be clear, Omicron isn’t harmless.  People are still being hospitalized and dying from it, just at a much lower rate than with Delta.  Work days are being lost, some types of group activities are curtailed, some college life is being disrupted, some school life will be disrupted.  Omicron imposes real costs.

I’ll try to make that the topic of my next post.  That is, a straight-up comparison of Omicron and the flu, to the extent that can be done.

In any case, if South Africa is an example, stonewalling on this issue will be easy enough.  The outbreak will be over before anybody can call you on it.

I’m being flip, but I see the most recent developments in South Africa as being really good news.  If it plays out here as it has in South Africa, we might have passed the peak of our Omicron outbreak as early as New Year’s Day.  And we’ll do it without overrunning the hospital system or stacking bodies in refrigerated trailers.  Which is great news, as these things go.  It’s just that nobody in a position of authority can tell us that, for fear that we’ll all party down and increase the spread of this still-harmful strain of COVID-19.