Most Omicron Cases in South Africa Have Mild Symptoms, COVID Shot Appears to Help: Doctor

As worries grow about the COVID-10 Omicron variant, one doctor in South Africa said the strain has been seen mostly among people in their 20s and 30s in a mild form, the Associated Press reported.

Dr. Unben Pillay, a general practitioner in the highly affected province of Gauteng, held an online press conference discussing the variant. He told reporters that many patients affected by the strain are being treated from home.

"We've seen a sharp increase in cases for the past 10 days," Pillay said. "So far they have mostly been very mild cases, with patients having flu-like symptoms: dry coughs, fever, night sweats, a lot of body pains."

He also noted that milder cases occurred in those who were vaccinated against the initial virus. However, Pillay also warned that the observations could change as more becomes known about the strain. That includes effects in older people, who could develop more severe symptoms than the ones experienced by those in their 20s and 30s. That demographic makes up the majority of current cases in South Africa.

"Vaccinated people tend to do much better. We have not seen a vast increase in hospitalizations, but this is still early days," he said. "Hospitalizations often come several days after a rise in confirmed cases."

Scientists have predicted that Omicron is more transmissible than other previous variants, such as Delta, and could affect unvaccinated populations the most, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

"Of recent hospitalizations, 87 percent have been unvaccinated, 13 percent have been vaccinated," said the Institute's public health specialist, Waasila Jassat.

South Africa has a population of 60 million people, with 16.5 million fully vaccinated. The country is urging those who have not gotten vaccinated do so in order to curb the spread of Omicron.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

SA Vaccination
Dr. Unben Pillay held an online press conference discussing the Omicron COVID-19 variant in South Africa. He told reporters that many patients affected by the strain are being treated from home with mild symptoms. Above, a health care worker prepares a dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine from a vial outside a polling station in Laudium, Pretoria, South Africa, on November 1, 2021. Photo by Phill Magakoe/AFP via Getty Images

Learning more about the Omicron variant is important as nations around the world sought Monday to keep the new variant at bay with travel bans and further restrictions, even as it remains unclear what the variant means for the COVID-19 pandemic.

Japan announced it would suspend entry for all foreign visitors, while new cases of the variant identified days ago by researchers in southern Africa appeared as far away as Hong Kong, Australia and Portugal. Portuguese authorities were investigating whether some infections there could be among the first reported cases of local transmission of the variant outside of southern Africa.

South Africa has seen its seven-day average of new cases over the past two weeks surge from about 200 per day to more than 2,000.

The surge in South Africa could bring the daily number of new cases to 10,000 by the end of the week, infectious diseases specialist Salim Abdool Karim, told the briefing.

"Our biggest challenge will be to stop super-spreading events, particularly indoors," he said, suggesting that it might be necessary to restrict indoor gatherings to those who are vaccinated.

The hotspot for the new surge is Gauteng's Tshwane metropolitan area, incorporating the capital, Pretoria.

The number of fully vaccinated who are testing positive is very small, said Nicholas Crisp, the acting director general of the department of health. "It is a very small number of those people who tested positive. It's minute in comparison to unvaccinated people."

The government is not planning to impose centralized vaccine mandates but will support businesses and organizations that seek proof of vaccination to enter indoor areas, Minister of Health Joe Phaahla told reporters.

The government is considering requiring vaccines for health workers, including those who work at state hospitals, he said.

"We are looking at concrete proposals on how to deal with vaccine mandates in workplaces and health care workplaces," Phaahla said.

A few African countries, including Angola, Egypt, Mauritius and Rwanda, have joined the slew of nations that have placed travel restrictions on South Africa and other countries in southern Africa.

"It's quite regrettable, very unfortunate and I'll even say sad to be talking about travel restrictions imposed by a fellow African country," said Clayson Monyela, spokesman for the Department of International Affairs and Cooperation. He called the decisions "unwarranted and unjustified because it's not based on science."

SA Lobby
Dr. Unben Pillay held an online press conference discussing the Omicron COVID-19 variant in South Africa. He told reporters that many patients affected by the strain are being treated from home with mild symptoms. Above, people wait to receive a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at a center in Soweto on November 29, 2021. AP Photo/Denis Farrell