As Texas braces itself for a potentially huge number of new COVID-19 cases on Monday, there's growing evidence that the omicron variant is far milder than previous versions of the virus.
A study released last week by a team of doctors and researchers at Houston Methodist Research Institute found that omicron was hospitalizing people at a smaller percentage than the delta variant — it was also less lethal. The study was published on a pre-print server, awaiting peer review, but it provides significant insight into some of the challenges physicians have faced in treating coronavirus.
"Omicron patients were significantly younger, had significantly increased vaccine breakthrough rates, and were significantly less likely to be hospitalized,'' the study said. "Omicron patients required less intense respiratory support and had a shorter length of hospital stay, consistent with decreased disease severity. Although the number of Omicron patients we studied is relatively small, in the aggregate the data document the unusually rapid spread and increased occurrence of COVID-19 caused by the Omicron variant in metropolitan Houston and provide information about disease character."
The median age of those with omicron was 38 — significantly younger than the previous variants. Part of that may be related to vaccinations, where older people are more likely to be fully vaccinated.
The hospital stays were about half as long for those with omicron compared to the delta variant. Omicron patients spent about three days in the hospital and required less invasive respiratory care.
"We cautiously interpret our findings to be consistent with decreased disease severity among Houston Methodist omicron patients," the study said. "Many factors undoubtedly have contributed, including but not limited to increased vaccination uptake, population immunity, and 110 patient demographics such as younger age. The extent to which our findings translate to other cities and other patient populations, including children, is unknown."
Since the pandemic's beginning, Houston Methodist has aggressively studied the virus, along with its mutations. The researchers admit some flaws because they can only survey the results from those within the Methodist system — accounting for about 5% of the infections in the Houston area.
However, the data compiled by the researchers provide a deep look at the impact on demographics and ethnicities. It also shows the varied treatments used to fight COVID-19.
The other issue is that the study makes no predictive assessment of the risk associated with the contagiousness of omicron and its related impact on hospitalizations. While omicron may be mild, it could still hospitalize thousands across Texas because of the sheer number of potential infections — further straining the state's hospitals.
Last week, an example of that surge was in Kerr County, where more than 150 people tested positive, but hospitalizations stayed at 10. Of course, the question coming off a long holiday weekend is will those numbers hold?