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Denmark sees initial signs that dire omicron surge can be avoided

A long line for free rapid coronavirus tests in Aalborg, Denmark, on Dec. 23. (Epa-Efe/Shutterstock/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Early benchmarks from Denmark on infections and hospitalizations are providing grounds for guarded optimism that highly vaccinated countries might be able to weather the omicron wave.

The developments, coupled with Denmark’s speedy rollout of booster shots, have raised hopes the country can avoid the dire coronavirus surge for which it has been bracing.

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“It’s too early to relax, but it’s encouraging that we are not following the worst-case scenario,” said Tyra Grove Krause, the chief epidemiologist at Denmark’s State Serum Institute.

Denmark’s detailed, nationwide program for coronavirus testing and analysis gives its scientists a trove of real-time data about the pandemic. Because of that — and because it was one of the first countries outside of Africa to witness omicron’s explosive potential — it has turned into a European bellwether for what to expect with the omicron variant.

Over the past week, the country has fared better than it was expecting. After surging to record-breaking levels, the number of daily cases has stabilized. Officials recorded 12,500 cases on Thursday, compared with 11,000 late last week.

More important, hospitalizations have come in — so far — on the very low end of what was projected. A week ago, Denmark’s government science institute said daily new coronavirus hospital admissions could range between 120 and 250 patients by Christmas Eve. In recent days, daily admissions have hung around 125.

“That is quite promising,” Grove Krause said.

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The early signals from Denmark don’t provide any direct measure on the severity of the variant, one of the key questions in this phase of the pandemic. But they track with other emerging data and studies from Britain and South Africa that suggest omicron is less likely to lead to hospitalization than the delta variant.

Scientists caution that there are still many uncertainties, and that even if omicron is less likely to cause hospitalization, its increased transmissibility means countless sicknesses and disruptions. The virus could also spread so widely that it nonetheless leads to an influx at hospitals.

Concerns remain about the health system in Denmark, Grove Krause said, because omicron infections are disproportionately concentrated among the young. For now, Grove Krause said, temporary school closures and social precautions have helped slow the spread — but the country could see a spike after holiday gatherings that bring together the young and old.

Even as cases have slowed, there are other signs of omicron’s potential to cause chaos. Over the past two weeks, the number of cases among health-care workers has more than doubled. A weekly government monitoring report said there had been two omicron outbreaks in nursing homes.

Since omicron emerged in November, scientists have been racing to understand its implications and make sense of a variant that’s moving far more quickly than its predecessors.

A few data points emerged this week, with one Scottish study suggesting the risk of hospitalization was almost 60 percent less with omicron than delta. Another analysis, conducted by Imperial College London, said people with omicron cases were 20 percent less likely to go to the hospital and 40 percent less likely to be hospitalized overnight. And South Africa, the epicenter of the first apparent outbreak, has seen much lower hospitalization rates than in other waves.

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It remains unclear whether trends from South Africa — where demographics skew younger — will play out in other parts of the world. It’s also unclear whether and to what extent omicron’s reduced severity is a feature of the virus itself, or rather a sign of population-level immunity stemming from vaccinations and past infections.

Compared with delta, omicron is far better at evading vaccines and causing infections in those who have been inoculated. But Denmark’s experience shows that a rapid booster rollout might be able to help cut down rising infection numbers. A team of scientists at the State Serum Institute said in a research paper this week that Pfizer-BioNTech booster shots appeared to provide a 55 percent protection against infections, compared with cases in those who had received two doses.

Omicron is the fifth coronavirus variant of concern and is spreading rapidly around the world. Here’s what we know. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

Even if that level of protection dips over time, boosters “can help us through the next months,” Grove Krause said.

According to Our World in Data, Denmark has issued the most per capita booster shots of any European Union country. Denmark said in its latest monitoring report, released Thursday, that 36.8 percent of its population had been boosted, more than double the level from two weeks earlier. Overall, 77.2 percent of the country’s population has received at least two doses.

Denmark carefully tracks hospitalization rates, comparing cases for delta and omicron. Between Nov. 22 and Dec. 17, the hospitalization rate was higher for delta cases: 1 percent, compared with 0.6 percent. The hospitalization numbers include those who tested positive before arriving and those who tested positive within 48 hours after admittance.

But for now, because the omicron cases are skewed among the young, scientists say an outright comparison is premature.

Read more:

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Thousands of flights delayed globally for Christmas holiday as omicron hits staffs

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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