By Chico HarlanYesterday at 9:24 a.m. EST

COPENHAGEN — In a country that tracks the spread of coronavirus variants as closely as any in the world, the signals have never been more concerning. Omicron positives are doubling nearly every two days. The country is setting one daily case record after another. The lab analyzing positive tests recently added an overnight shift just to keep up.

And scientists say the surge is just beginning.

As omicron drives a new phase of the pandemic, many are looking to Denmark — and particularly the government institute devoted to testing, surveillance and modeling — for warnings about what to expect.

The emerging answer — even in this highly vaccinated, wealthy northern European country — is dire. For all the defenses built over the last year, the virus is about to sprint out of control, and scientists here expect a similar pattern in much of the world.

Comment: Put another way this is the press, and the governments admitting that the vaccine ramp up has been a complete waste of time. Bearing in mind that every new variant requires a new vaccine.

“The next month will be the hardest period of the pandemic,” said Tyra Grove Krause, the chief epidemiologist at Denmark’s State Serum Institute, a campus of brick buildings along a canal.

Ever since the omicron variant emerged in November, the best hope has been that it might cause less severe sickness than the delta version it is competing with, which in turn might make this wave more manageable and help the transition of covid-19 into an endemic disease. But Denmark’s projections show the wave so fully inundating the country that even a lessened strain will deliver an unprecedented blow.

Scientists caution that the knowledge of omicron remains imprecise. Denmark’s virus modelers have many scenarios. But even in a middle-of-the-road scenario, Danish hospitals will soon face a daily flow of patients several times beyond what they’ve previously seen.Advertisement

“This will overwhelm hospitals,” Grove Krause said. “I don’t have any doubt about it.”

What to know about the omicron variant of the coronavirus

In her office building, where she works with a six-person modeling team, she tried to explain why omicron amounts to such a setback in the fight against the pandemic. She likened the virus to a flood, and she described how vaccines, under earlier variants, had acted like two barrier walls safeguarding the health system. One barrier resulted from the vaccines’ ability to reduce the probability of infection, keeping spread low. The other barrier stemmed from the diminished likelihood of severe sickness and death. Both barriers had some holes, but together, they ensured that the floodwaters never got too high.

The Real Truth

But now, she said, the first barrier has been largely removed. Denmark’s data shows people with two doses to be just as vulnerable to omicron infection as the unvaccinated.

Those who’ve received boosters have better protection — a sign of hope — but meanwhile, about 3 in 4 Danes have yet to receive a third dose, making the majority of the country vulnerable.

That dynamic, coupled with a variant far more transmissible than the one from last winter, means any Danish person is now dramatically more likely to come in contact with the virus — including the old and the frail, as Denmark’s demographics skew older, like much of the West. The water will now flow through the holes in the second wall.

WHO: Omicron is spreading faster than any other variant. Here’s the latest on what we know.At least four dozen countries and 39 U.S. states have reported cases of the omicron variant. National video reporter Hannah Jewell explains what we know.

On her double-monitor computer, Grove Krause pulled up the institute’s latest projections, which scientists were still tweaking before releasing them to the public on Saturday. The range of possibilities is wide, but the very best scenario — which is unlikely, she said — shows daily hospitalizations matching the peak of last year. In most of the other scenarios, the numbers soar into the stratosphere.

Denmark’s hospitals have never had more than 1,000 covid 19 patients at any given time, last winter’s peak. But by early January, in a moderate scenario, hospitals could be seeing 500 new covid patients arriving every day. If omicron’s transmissibility winds up on the higher end, and it proves just as severe as the delta variant, with a strong ability to evade vaccines, daily admissions could reach 800.

And then there is the matter of infections. Before this wave, Denmark had never seen more than 5,000 cases in a day. On Friday, it logged more than 11,000 new cases. Within a week, in a moderate scenario, case numbers could hit 27,000. And into January? The institute’s estimates climb higher still, off the Y-axis.

With the surge coming into view, Denmark this month cut the opening hours for bars and restaurants, urged people to work from home, and closed schools seven days earlier than planned for Christmas break. Grove Krause cautioned that the projections didn’t take into account the government’s further moves announced Friday, which include the closure of cinemas and theaters. But even a full lockdown, she said, “won’t stop this from getting out of control.”

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Denmark’s projections are taken seriously around the world, because they are informed by an all-encompassing coronavirus surveillance system designed specifically for moments like this — when the nature of the virus is quickly shifting.Advertisement

The system starts with testing: Denmark swabs more people than almost any other country — at a per capita pace seven times that of the United States. The tests, which are free for both citizens and travelers, then arrive at the State Serum Institute, as well as at a sister facility on the other side of the country. Lab technicians identify the positives within 24 hours. And by the following day, they know which variant is responsible for every case.

A portion of the positives are then fully genetically sequenced, delivering an extra layer of insight — allowing researchers not only to see mutations, but also to potentially understand who infected whom.

“We’re seeing things pretty much in real time,” said Arieh Cohen, head of development at the lab that processes test results and conducts the initial variant analysis.

Omicron spreading rapidly in U.S. and could bring punishing wave as soon as January, CDC warns

What that data has shown, so far, is that the hospitalization rate is slightly lower for omicron than it is for delta — though because hospitalizations lag behind infections, and because omicron infections hit only recently, scientists say the results will be more meaningful in a couple of weeks.Advertisement

Scientists have also identified how omicron was seeded throughout the country, first from travelers inbound from Africa, and then through several superspreader events. A just-published paper from the institute and other researchers described a Christmas party attended by about 150 people.

Most were vaccinated. And yet 71 tested positive for omicron.

Initial omicron cases in Denmark have been concentrated disproportionately among people in their 20s — an age group that normally has mild symptoms, and whose infections might be missed by countries that test less. Some scientists at the institute think Denmark’s wave is a week or two ahead of other Western countries. But others say many countries could already be experiencing the same pattern, with the young — who are most likely to travel and socialize — jump-starting community spread.

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