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The World Health Organization on Wednesday cautioned against treating the omicron Covid variant as a mild strain, warning that the virus will also cause severe illness.
“We know that people infected with omicron can have the full spectrum of disease, from asymptomatic infection to mild disease, all the way to severe disease to death,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead, told the public during a question and answer session.
The WHO warned on Tuesday that omicron is spreading faster than any previous variant. Van Kerkhove said Wednesday that increased transmission will result in increased hospitalizations that burden health-care systems, some of which will fail.
“If a system is overburdened, then people will die,” Van Kerkhove said. “We have to be really careful that there isn’t a narrative out there that it’s just a mild disease.”
The elderly, people who have underlying health conditions and the unvaccinated are still at risk of severe disease, Van Kerkhove said.
Dr. Mike Ryan, director of WHO’s health emergencies program, said the omicron variant is doubling every two days or less in the United Kingdom.
“If you have 100,000 cases today, it’s 200,000 cases in two days time, but then its 400,000 two days later, and then it’s 800,000 two days later,” Ryan said. Over the course of a week, “the actual number of cases can increase eight or 10 fold and that’s what we’re concerned about.”
Van Kerkhove said people need to continue Covid-prevention practices, including wearing masks, maintaining a distance from people and washing thteir hands.
“So we need to act now. It’s not time to wait. There is no time to wait until we start to see increasing hospitalizations,” she said, noting that some countries are already seeing hospitalizations rise. “Especially as holidays are coming up, and there’s more social mixing … people need to evaluate and reevaluate what they do, and make the decisions that are best for them and best for your families.”
The U.K. on Wednesday reported the highest number Covid infections since the pandemic began, with more than 78,000 new cases in the last 24 hours. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned of a “tidal wave” of omicron infections in the coming days.