COVID Cases Should No Longer Be Key Metric of Pandemic, Says Health Expert

A leading health expert said Sunday that as the Omicron variant spreads, the number of COVID infections should no longer be a "major metric" for tracking the pandemic. The focus should instead be on hospitalizations and deaths, said Ashish K. Jha, dean of Brown University's School of Public Health.

In an interview with ABC News on Sunday, Jha discussed the number of breakthrough COVID cases occurring in people who have been vaccinated and boosted. He noted that the Omicron variant is mutated and that "our antibodies just work a little bit less efficiently" against it.

"And so if you get a high enough dose of this virus, it'll break through that first wall of your immune system," Jha said. But the immune system in those who have been vaccinated has "a second wall" that prevents severe illness, he noted, pointing out that most people with breakthrough cases report mild symptoms.

ABC Host Jonathan Karl said that since the beginning of the pandemic, the number of COVID infections in the U.S. has "been the leading indicator of how bad things are getting, or how effectively we're dealing with the pandemic." He then asked, "Are we getting to the point where that indicator really isn't the one that matters? If new cases, as you said, among the vaccinated are not leading to serious sickness, is it an indicator that we should really be paying so much attention to?"

"Yeah, I think this is the most important part of this moment in this pandemic—we have to do a shift," Jha responded.

COVID Cases Shouldn't Be Key Pandemic Metric
Ashish K. Jha, dean of the School of Public Health at Brown University, said Sunday that as the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 spreads, the number of COVID-19 infections should no longer be a "major metric" for tracking the pandemic. Above, a testing site at Los Angeles International Airport on December 21. Mario Tama

He noted that over the past two years COVID-19 infections "always preceded hospitalizations, which preceded deaths."

"So you could look at infections and know what was coming. Even through the Delta wave that was true because it was largely unvaccinated people who were getting infected. Omicron changes that," he said. "This is the shift we've been waiting for in many ways, where we're moving to a phase where if you're vaccinated, and particularly if you're boosted, you might get an infection. It might be a couple of days of not feeling so great, but you're gonna bounce back. That's very different than what we have seen in the past."

Jha said that, generally, he doesn't believe infections "should be the major metric."

"Obviously we can continue to track infections among unvaccinated people because those people will end up in the hospital at the same rate. But we really have to focus on hospitalizations and deaths now," he said.