The speed at which Omicron is spreading as well as its more benign clinical outcomes could be the game-changer that brings an end to this pandemic. This is no longer wishful thinking or fake news but a prospect seriously being considered by Thailand’s top officials at the Ministry of Public Health and leading medical experts just days after the kingdom imposed precautionary economic restrictions to buy time to monitor how the rising Omicron virus strain impacts the virus situation in the country.
The permanent secretary at the Ministry of Public Health, Dr Kiattiphum Wongrajit, said on Monday that the Omicron virus strain which presently accounts for 50% of cases in Bangkok and 30% nationwide but is accelerating faster than any virus in history, may spell the end of the COVID-19 pandemic and offers an opportunity for life in the kingdom to return to normal. Dr Kiattiphum described the milder Omicron strain as harmless for an increasingly vaccinated population when addressing reporters.
Thai officials with the Ministry of Public Health and the health services have been sending positive signals in the last 48 hours that the pandemic may be drawing to a close and that 2022 may see it becoming an endemic disease.
This was confirmed on Monday by Dr Kiattiphum Wongrajit, the permanent secretary at the Ministry of Public Health, as he acknowledged that the latest Omicron wave of the COVID-19 virus has, so far, seen milder symptoms and a substantially lower death rate.
‘Test and Go’ suspended indefinitely last Friday as officials within the CCSA adopted a wait and see stance
Following last week’s meeting of the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration (CCSA) on Friday which confirmed the indefinite ban on the ‘Test and Go’ foreign tourist entry regime and ushered in restrictions on alcohol in 69 provinces, officials were letting it be known that it would take two weeks to see and understand the impact of this latest and most infectious virus strain.
Tourism business owners think the unthinkable, the Omicron storm may bring with it good news over time
It now appears that the new strain may indeed have brought good news in this struggle against the COVID-19 virus and pandemic which has been ongoing for nearly two years.
Omicron is harmless for most people in Thailand who are already fully vaccinated against the virus
Senior officials in the Thai medical establishment within the Ministry of Public Health, in the last 48 hours are now openly accepting a potential end to the pandemic and even suggesting that the Omicron virus may help boost inoculation efforts against the virus among the public in addition to vaccines which are helping to protect the population, especially the vulnerable.
On Monday, Dr Kiattiphum praised the cooperation of the public in exercising caution and for following official advice at this time.
He also described the current strain as harmless once people are vaccinated.
‘The disease naturally reduces its severity on its own and everyone in Thailand is cooperating with the vaccination drive,’ he explained. ‘Consequently, the disease can do no harm. Besides, there are effective operations for treatment and the slowdown of outbreaks. These will make it possible for the disease to become endemic.’
Department of Disease Control boss Dr Opas Karnkawinpong and top Bangkok experts say Omicron can help boost inoculation against COVID-19
The public health official’s opinion coincides with comments made by Dr Opas Karnkawinpong the powerful Director of the Department of Disease Control who has been to the fore in directing efforts to combat the virus wave during the pandemic since 2020 and Dr Manoon Leechawengwongs, one of Thailand’s top pulmonary disease specialists and Director of Medicine at the Faculty of Medicine at Ramathibodi Hospital, Mahidol University.
It is increasingly looking like good news as Omicron may well displace the deadlier Delta virus wave in Thailand over the coming days or weeks, such is the speed at which it spreads.
Omicron, the fastest spreading virus in history
This speed and the sheer spread of infection will also, like everywhere else in the world, present challenges to Thailand in terms of the availability of staff particularly in the health services and the need to avoid panic as the Omicron storm passes.
It has now been confirmed by Harvard that Omicron is thought to be the fastest spreading virus ever discovered.
While the Omicron virus has a lower R rate than the common measles at between 8 and 15 compared to 15 for measles and 6.5 to 8 for the Delta variant, those contracting the disease become infectious far faster.
This was confirmed in recent days by William Hanage, a respected epidemiologist and a director of the Centre for Communicable Disease Dynamics at Harvard University.
Effectively it means that Omicron may cause the COVID-19 virus to burn itself out as a more lethal pathogen.
Public health officials and experts maintain a cautious stance aimed at protecting the hospital system
At the same time, public health officials and medical experts in Thailand are determined to exercise caution to make sure that the country’s public health system is not overloaded, that a new variant does not develop in the meantime and that the country’s vaccination efforts are maintained to finally bring the pandemic to a halt.
On Sunday, Dr Opas, known for his hawkish stance on such matters, said that the health service would be moving towards home treatment and isolation for those infected who are not showing severe symptoms of Covid.
It comes as the Omicron variant is moving into a dominant position in Thailand with over half the cases in Bangkok over the weekend ascribed to the new and milder strain while figures for Phuket where there is another outbreak of COVID-19 driven by the new strain among the local population with tests showing that over 66% of detected cases were Omicron.
Data on Tuesday suggested, however, that still only 30% of cases nationwide were of the Omicron strain.
Dr Opas advises hot honey and lime drink as well as green chiretta tablets which can be prescribed for those suffering from mild Omicron symptoms
On Sunday, Dr Opas advised those who contracted the new variant to drink a brew of hot honey and lime for the throat while also pointing out that green chiretta tablets can be prescribed without going to hospital.
At the same time, Dr Manoon of Ramathibodi Hospital said that only those who feel their condition worsening should seek hospital treatment at this time.
On Monday, Dr Kiattiphum Wongrajit explained that the government’s priority was to avoid the public health system being overwhelmed and to use the country’s arsenal of vaccines and treatments for the disease to usher in a new situation where the virus becomes endemic and the pandemic emergency finally comes to an end.
New trend could see normal life returning
He said that this trend if it continues, should lead to normal life and business operations returning to the kingdom.
‘When the disease becomes endemic, business and activities can quickly be restored,’ he said.
On Sunday, both Dr Opas and Dr Manoon appeared to be of the view that Omicron will indirectly boost inoculation against the virus in Thailand due to its rapid transmission while at the same time being far less harmful.
They agreed that it could spell the end to this current pandemic.
Omicron does not cause the same level of pulmonary infection and is generally confined to the upper respiratory tracts according to medical studies
This has been confirmed in the last week with medical studies showing that the Omicron wave does not result in the same level of pulmonary infection and is generally confined to the upper respiratory tracts of the body much the same as a normal cold.
At the same time, Dr Manoon still cautioned the public not to be complacent and to observe public health guidance while also not being in fear of contracting the new variant.
He suggested that most people in Thailand will likely contract COVID-19 sooner or later but they will be better protected if they are vaccinated while they can also receive treatment for the infection.
‘If we get infected, we just have to get treated,’ he said, with most people being treated at home and hospitals being reserved for those most in need. ‘Home isolation will be the main mode of treatment, as we will reserve hospital beds for those with identified risks and serious conditions.’
Omicron storm still to blow over
At the same time, the impending Omicron storm has yet to blow over with the prospect of a huge surge in infections not yet being ruled out despite some three days of national declines with only 7,133 cases announced on Tuesday.
Nonetheless, in Phuket, a rising Omicron wave is driving up a need for public hospital beds with 722 new cases alone recorded on Sunday.
30.6% of these were foreign tourists while the remaining were local residents.
18% were holidaymakers under the Phuket Sandbox scheme with 12.6% being ‘Travel And Go’ tourists.
Phuket is in the midst of an infection outbreak driven by Omicron cases on the holiday island
‘During the past seven days, an average of 340 new cases were detected in Phuket and the number is trending upwards,’ Dr Kusak Kukiattikoon, the local public health director on the island revealed.
He called for the public to exercise caution at this time by avoiding crowds and public places with poor ventilation.
He urged anyone who is infected to call the 1330 public health number where they will receive guidance on home isolation and support.
Dr Kusak also urged employers and business operators to use the proven bubble and seal method to close off their business operations and staff if an infection occurs.
The Governor of Phuket, Narong Woonsiew, said his priority was ensuring that local authorities have enough medicine and medical supplies to cope with the Omicron surge.
He confirmed that Omicron cases were now over 66% of the surge being experienced.
‘Home and community isolation will be prioritised because most patients have mild or no symptoms and this will help free up hospital beds for more severe cases and patients with other kinds of illness,’ the governor declared.
Political implications if the pandemic ends soon
For most people in Thailand, the pandemic crisis began on the 26th March 2020 when the Emergency Decree came into effect after being approved by the cabinet two days earlier on March 24th 2020.
At the time, Prime Minister Prayut Chan ocha raised his hands in a gesture of victory and defiance against the threat.
If the medical and public health experts are correct, then at some stage this year and perhaps quite soon, the emergency decree may be rescinded.
This would hand the PM a major political boost amid a sigh of relief from a grateful population as people may dare to hope again for progress after two years of struggle and setbacks.