South Africa says Omicron wave swiftly subsiding, with no major increase in deaths

Country lifts curfew, says infections have passed their peak; ‘The speed with which the Omicron-driven wave rose, peaked and then declined has been staggering,’ official says

Customers queue to buy fireworks outside the St Mary Cathedral in Johannesburg, on December 30, 2021, ahead of New Years eve celebrations on December 31, 2021. (Marco Longari / AFP)
Customers queue to buy fireworks outside the St Mary Cathedral in Johannesburg, on December 30, 2021, ahead of New Years eve celebrations on December 31, 2021. (Marco Longari / AFP)

South Africa, where the Omicron variant was detected in November, said Thursday that the country’s latest coronavirus wave had likely passed its peak without a significant increase in deaths and that restrictions would be eased.

The highly contagious Omicron variant, which contains a number of mutations, has fueled an end-of-year global pandemic resurgence. But mounting evidence, including in South Africa, has given rise to hopes it may be less severe than other strains.

“All indicators suggest the country may have passed the peak of the fourth wave,” the South African presidency said in a statement that announced the end of the nightly curfew.

Infections dropped by almost 30 percent last week compared to the preceding seven days, according to the presidency, while hospital admissions also declined in eight of the nine provinces.

During the spike, only a marginal increase in COVID-19 deaths was noted, it added.

“While the Omicron variant is highly transmissible, there has been lower rates of hospitalization than in previous waves,” the statement said. “This means that the country has a spare capacity for admission of patients even for routine health services.”

Omicron was first identified in South Africa and Botswana in late November. It quickly became the dominant strain in South Africa, causing an explosion of infections with a peak of about 26,000 daily cases recorded by mid-December, according to official statistics.

A boy gets vaccinated against COVID-19 at a site near Johannesburg, December 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell;File)

The variant is currently present in more than 100 countries, according to the World Health Organization, and affects vaccinated people as well as those who have already had coronavirus.

South Africa has been the hardest hit by coronavirus on the continent, recording more than 3.4 million cases and 91,000 deaths. But fewer than 13,000 infections had been recorded in the past 24 hours.

“The speed with which the Omicron-driven fourth wave rose, peaked and then declined has been staggering. Peak in four weeks and precipitous decline in another two,” Fareed Abdullah of the South African Medical Research Council posted on Twitter.

While many Omicron-affected countries are reimposing virus countermeasures, South Africa announced it was reversing course just ahead of New Year’s Eve celebrations.

Calls for the midnight to 4 a.m. curfew to be lifted had been mounting in the hospitality sector, with owners launching an online petition addressed to President Cyril Ramaphosa.

People wait in the observation area after receiving the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at the Vaccination Centre of Hope at the Cape Town International Convention Centre in Cape Town, South Africa, Tuesday, Nov. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Nardus Engelbrecht)

“The curfew will be lifted. There will therefore be no restrictions on the hours of movement of people,” the presidency’s statement said.

The government continued to stress the need for caution and vaccination, however.

“The risk of increased infections remains high given the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant,” the presidency warned.

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