Bay Area health experts warn omicron surge is coming, but will it be worse than delta?

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Bay Area health experts warn we are on the cusp of yet another COVID-19 surge across the country due to the highly-contagious omicron variant. But new data out of South Africa shows the next one could be much milder.

"In the Bay Area, I expect people will get omicron," said UCSF's Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, who added we could see signs of a surge within two weeks. "If they do get it, it will be very mild and people wouldn't even know they have it."

In contrast with other waves of COVID, our first early look at the patients hospitalized with omicron in South Africa show promising signs. The preliminary data out of South Africa shows the majority of hospitalized patients are unvaccinated and younger - with 80% under the age of 50. Cases are reported to be milder than delta and patients aren't in the ICU or on oxygen.

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"The fact that they're not requiring oxygen in the hospital is a good sign," said Dr. Chin-Hong. "It mainly shows that there isn't a robust bad inflammation that causes the lungs to get all clogged up."

Dr. Chin-Hong says this early evidence is a promising sign our next surge will likely be mild and not overwhelm our hospital capacity - especially in a highly-vaccinated population like the Bay Area. But he also pointed out, it's still early and it usually takes more than two weeks for people to get severely ill.

"South Africa's population is much younger, which means there aren't as many people with comorbidities," he said. "It may mean their early mild cases may not be the case in the U.S. - particularly in unvaccinated immunocompromised individuals with heart disease, lung disease, and obesity."

Experts stressed it's crucial to get your booster shots because the next couple of months could present a triple threat: cases of the flu, omicron, and delta.

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Bay Area experts are concerned we might be entering a "twindemic" with cases of the omicron variant increasing with the flu season.

"I think it's quite possible that delta and omicron will coexist in certain places," said UCSF's Dr. George Rutherford.

But it's unclear if the combination will result in more severe disease.

"There's nothing stopping a person from getting influenza plus omicron, or influenza plus delta," said Dr. Chin-Hong. "And that interaction may make people sicker. We just don't know yet."

Dr. Chin-Hong says an omicron surge will happen in the Bay Area but he predicts it will be much slower than what we're seeing across the country. As far as the impacts to children, preliminary data shows kids are getting infected, but unlike delta, aren't getting severely sick in the hospital.

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