If omicron is really a milder variant, why are so many North Texans in the hospital?

·4 min read
Rogelio V. Solis/AP

It’s been a little over a month since omicron was first detected in Tarrant County, when a 30-something Frisco man contracted the variant that originated in South Africa in late November.

Since then, you’ve heard it all: omicron is not as dangerous as the delta variant. It doesn’t matter if you become infected with the omicron mutation. Everyone will eventually get contract it.

Despite data showing omicron causes milder symptoms and fewer deaths, hospitals in North Texas have been overwhelmed with patients over a short period. As of Tuesday, 91% of Tarrant County hospital beds and 97% of ICU beds were occupied.

So why are hospitals so full if omicron is less dangerous? We asked Texas health experts.

Omicron variant is more contagious

“We want to be very cautious about looking at this thing and saying, ‘Hey, this is no big deal’ or ‘Hey, we should actually just let it run wild, we’ll let everybody get infected and then we’ll get over it,’” said Dr. Mark Casanova of Baylor Scott and White Health. “That would quite literally crush our hospital systems.”

Omicron is four times more transmissible than the delta variant, according to a recent study conducted in Japan. Because more people are getting omicron, more people are being hospitalized, too.

“From what we’ve seen, it just is more infectious than any other variant we’ve seen,” said Dr. Shane Fernando, clinical epidemiologist at the UNT Health Science Center. “We’re looking at it as a general, across the board infectious agent that is increasing in all populations, and all demographics.”

Omicron could make you and others severely ill

The omicron variant is thought to cause less severe illness in some cases. But there’s no way for you to really know how serious it will be for you or the people around you.

“What we want to remind folks is that anything that is less than horrible, is still bad,” Casanova said. “Something being less than horrible doesn’t make it good.”

Even if you have mild symptoms, you can easily spread it to unvaccinated or immunocompromised people who are more at-risk for severe illness. That also makes it more likely for another variant to mutate.

While omicron tends to be milder on those who are vaccinated, the 38% of Tarrant County residents who are unvaccinated are experiencing severe reactions to omicron. Children are more likely than other age groups to be unvaccinated, which means they could get sicker than others.

If you spread omicron to someone who is immunocompromised — has a medical condition or is over 65-years-old — you could make them severely sick.

“If you kind of think of that bell shaped curve, there’s people on the left side that are super mildly affected, and people in the far right side that are significantly affected, even with omicron, and then there’s the masses that live in the middle that fare okay,” Casanova said. “You couple that with its crazy contagiousness, and what you have is actually a larger number of individuals needing to seek health care and be hospitalized.”

Omicron is overwhelming hospitals

Because a rising number of COVID patients are being hospitalized, hospital workers are increasingly contracting COVID and calling in sick. That leaves hospitals without the staffing necessary to handle patients.

“Another reason we’re getting so much issues with our hospitals is because our health care workers are getting sick at a faster rate,” Fernando said. “I know quite a few of them are very much burned out at this point. And just seeing more and more and more patients with each subsequent wave becomes very difficult for them to keep going on.”

COVID patients are also taking up hospital and ICU beds that could be used for life-threatening illnesses. There were 1,388 hospitalized COVID patients in Tarrant County as of Wednesday.

“That’s an unfortunate situation because a lot of people who may have scheduled surgery, who may be coming in for a heart attack, etc., are now unable to get their treatment,” Fernando said.

Omicron will peak soon

Omicron could get worse before it gets better, health experts say.

The peak of the omicron variant surge is expected to happen around the end of January, according to UT Southwestern researchers. Hospitalizations in the county are projected to continue to increase rapidly in near term and could double by the end of January, far exceeding previous peaks. The county could have more than 2,500 hospitalizations at a time.