As omicron fuels a nationwide surge in Covid-19 cases, Dr. Ashish Jha, one of the nation’s top health experts, joined a growing chorus of experts arguing health officials should start to put a greater focus on hospitalizations and deaths—as opposed to case counts—to track the severity of Covid-19 waves, pointing to the less severe illness among the now high proportion of the population that is vaccinated as a pivot point for the pandemic.
In a Sunday interview on ABC News’ This Week, Jha said some early evidence showing the omicron variant of the coronavirus often causes only “mild, cold-like” symptoms among vaccinated people is a “big saving grace” and proof the vaccines are “working.”
“It’s not March 2020,” said Jha, who serves as dean of the Brown School of Public Health, adding that the lower severity of many new cases warrants looking at the pandemic “in a very different light” and replacing infections as the “major metric” with hospitalizations and deaths.
Jha said he’s convinced the pandemic will spur additional variants, but posited each of them will impact lives “less and less” until they no longer have a big effect on hospitals.
He also added a caveat, saying case counts should still be a focus for unvaccinated people, who are still likely to be hospitalized at rates that are similar to previous variants.
Despite evidence showing lower hospitalization rates during the omicron waves in South Africa and the United Kingdom, Jha said uncertainty remains around how bad omicron infections could be for unvaccinated people who have not had Covid recently and cautioned the illness may not be mild enough to prevent widespread hospitalizations.
As of Sunday, the U.S. is reporting an average of nearly 188,000 new Covid cases each day, more than double the rate one month earlier but still roughly 75% of the all-time high in January; hospitalizations, meanwhile, have hit about 64,000—half the January peak.
“For two years, infections always preceded hospitalizations, which preceded deaths, so you could look at infections and know what was coming, but omicron changes that,” Jha said. “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 going to bounce back, and that’s very different than what we’ve seen.”
The omicron variant has quickly swept through the world since it was first reported to the World Health Organization last month. Despite evidence showing the variant is vastly more contagious than its predecessor strains, a study by Imperial College researchers in London showed people infected with omicron in the U.K. were 15% to 20% less likely to end up in an emergency room with severe symptoms and 40% less likely to be hospitalized overnight, as compared to the delta variant, which spurred a Covid wave in the U.S. this summer.
“We have reached a point in the pandemic where policy should no longer be based around the idea that we cannot resume normal life until case numbers are below a particular (arbitrary) level,” medical professors Monica Gandhi and Leslie Bienen wrote for Time earlier this month, arguing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should “stop basing guidance on when to unmask on case counts” given the lower hospitalization rates. They also suggested vaccination rates could serve as a replacement metric.