A leading health professor said COVID-19 case numbers should not be considered a major metric for policymakers amid the spread of the Omicron variant as recent data suggests that it causes less severe symptoms and fewer hospitalizations.
“For two years, infections always preceded hospitalizations which preceded deaths, so you could look at infections and know what was coming,” Ashish K. Jha, dean of Brown University and a former Harvard professor, told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “Omicron changes that. This is the shift we’ve been waiting for in many ways.”
With the United State’s COVID-19 vaccination rate, it’s “very different than what we have seen in the past,” he said. “So I no longer think infections, generally, should be the major metric.”
Instead, U.S. officials “really need to focus on hospitalizations and deaths now,” Jha remarked.
In his interview, Jha—like many other public health professors and officials—didn’t make any mention of studies regarding natural immunity afforded by previous COVID-19 infection.
Since the Omicron variant was first named by the World Health Organization last month, few deaths worldwide have been reported despite its rapid spread. Authorities in Houston, Texas, said the first Omicron-related death may have occurred last week.
Meanwhile, Germany’s Robert Koch Institute confirmed the country’s first Omicron-related death several days ago, weeks after Omicron cases were first detected. The individual who died was between the ages of 60 and 79, officials said.
Despite Jha’s optimistic outlook, White House COVID-19 adviser Anthony Fauci asserted during a separate ABC News interview on Sunday that “we don’t want to get complacent” because “when you have such a high volume of new infections, it might override a real diminution in severity.”
“If you have many, many, many more people with a less level of severity, that might kind of neutralize the positive effect of having less severity when you have so many more people,” he said, without providing studies or data. “And we’re particularly worried about those who are in that unvaccinated class … those are the most vulnerable ones when you have a virus that is extraordinarily effective in getting to people.”
Last week, President Joe Biden announced he would deploy some 500 million at-home rapid COVID-19 test kits starting next month. The administration will also set up more federal testing sites around the United States, starting in New York City.
According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll that was carried out last week, only about 12 percent of unvaccinated Americans said the Omicron variant would spur them to get the vaccine.