Fears that Omicron case surge could disrupt public services in France


The surge in Covid cases related to the Omicron variant could cause considerable disruption to public services in January due to the number of workers off sick, scientific advisers to the government fear.

The good news though is that two initial studies suggest infections will not necessarily lead to hospitalisations

Speaking in a press conference today, the president of the Conseil scientifique, Jean-François Delfraissy, spoke of a “possible disorganisation of society from the beginning of January. 

He said this could affect “a certain number of essential services”, linked to more absenteeism and sick leave due to a “very high number of Omicron infections”.

Fellow member Arnaud Fontaney said hundreds of thousands of cases are expected, causing widespread staff shortages.

He added: “Projected figures lead us to believe that Omicron is already the dominant variant in Ile-de-France and that it will become the dominant variant in the rest of the country by the end of the year.”

Another member, Olivier Guérin, a doctor in Nice, said: “The sick leave and isolation of contact cases could affect strategic sectors of our society such as food distribution, security, energy, transport, communications and health.”

Yesterday (December 22), 84,272 new cases were reported in France, and in Ile-de-France, the infection rate for 20 to 29-year-olds now exceeds 1,000 per 100,000 of the population, meaning that one in every 100 people in this age group has the virus.

Health Minister Olivier Véran has said that France will likely be seeing case numbers in excess of 100,000 per day by the New Year. 

Read more: Omicron, boosters, child vaccines: Updates from French health minister

President Emmanuel Macron has called for people in France to do a test “for reassurance” before meeting family and friends for Christmas celebrations, stressing the importance of barrier gestures and self-isolation in the case of symptoms.

Read more: Covid France: 500,000 people set to spend Christmas in self-isolation

Increased risk on planes? 

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), has expressed concerns about the transmission of the Omicron variant, which is thought to be significantly more contagious than Delta, in plane cabins.

The association, which represents 300 airlines including Air France, has called for a reinforcement of hygiene measures within planes to prevent the spread of the virus. 

Lufthansa today (December 23) announced it is canceling several flights due to staff shortages caused by Covid infections. 

David Powell, IATA’s medical advisor, has said that it is necessary to “avoid face to face contact and contact with frequently touched surfaces,” as the likelihood of catching Covid in the cabin is potentially doubled with the Omicron variant. 

He also suggested that people sitting next to each other should try to avoid being unmasked at the same time during meals.

“The advice is the same, it’s just that the relative risk has probably increased, just as the relative risk of going to the supermarket or catching a bus has increased with Omicron,” he said. 

Dr Powell also stressed that planes are a “very high-flow airflow environment. They are an enclosed space, but that doesn’t shout ‘risk’ to me. An Irish pub with a fan in the corner shouts ‘risk’ to me, or a gymnasium with a whole lot of people shouting and grunting and sweating. 

“But any flight you take does involve airports as well, which are a little bit less controlled.

“The requirements for airflows on board are much more stringent than they are for airport buildings generally. 

“The protective factors in an airline cabin are: everybody stays seated, facing the same direction, there are these physical barriers [ie. seats] that are in the way, you have a high degree of airflow that’s by and large from ceiling to floor.

“Roughly 50% of the airflow is fresh from outside, 50% is recirculated, but when it’s recirculated, it’s HEPA [high efficiency particulate absorbing]-filtered, so it’s clean. 

“Most of these aren’t present in the airport phase. You’ve got much more random movement, you’ve got generally reduced airflows,” he added, estimating that the ventilation rates within an airport are approximately 10% of those on board a plane.

More transmissible but fewer serious cases

Two preliminary studies carried out in the UK suggest that infections linked to the Omicron variant are less likely to require hospitalisation than those linked to Delta, confirming a trend first noted in South Africa. 

Read more: Why Omicron could be good news: French experts give views

However, because Omicron is so transmissible and is causing so many more infections, it will no doubt result in an overall increase in the number of people needing hospital treatment. 

In the UK, 106,000 new Covid cases were recorded yesterday (December 22), and the recent surge in infections linked to Omicron has started to have a knock-on effect on hospital admissions. 

In London, hospitalisations have risen by 30% in one week. However, this rise is not as extreme as that of previous waves.

A British-South African team led by Ravindra Gupta of the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease has published an – as yet non-peer reviewed – article stating that Omicron’s mutations reduce its ability to penetrate lung cells and cause lung-associated disease. 

In South Africa, the number of new infections has been declining for the past week, suggesting that the country’s Omicron peak has now passed. If France follows the same pattern, case numbers will surge rapidly but then decline almost as quickly.

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases has published figures which show that the rate of hospitalisation among Omicron patients is 80% lower than among Delta patients. 

Those who were hospitalised had a 30% lower risk of developing serious complications. 

It is also thought that vaccines continue to protect people infected with Omicron against serious forms of Covid, and that a booster dose cuts one’s risk of catching the virus by up to 70%. 

However, “We cannot satisfy ourselves that this drop in pathogenicity [the potential of infection to lead to disease] will protect the healthcare system,” French biologist Morgane Bomsel told Le Figaro

“We must also continue with the vaccination campaign, especially as studies show the decisive role played by the booster dose. 

“The booster not only increases antibody levels but also allows the body to select the best ones, which makes its reaction to the virus more effective.” 

Speaking of the situation in London in today’s press conference, Conseil member Yazdan Yazdanpanah said: “Nobody vaccinated with three doses is in hospital.” It is reported that half of hospitalisations there are among the unvaccinated and after this the largest group is those who have had one dose.

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