The number of positive cases has been going up gradually in Nepal. Ever since the Omicron variant was detected in December last year, people seem to be taking it more lightly than ever, as WHO announced it to be non-fatal. However, looking at the growth in the number of infected people, we may not be far from a third wave of the pandemic even though there aren't many hospitalization cases.
1. How long do we have before the third wave of the pandemic fully hits Nepal?
Dr. Manisha Rawal, Director of Sukraraj Tropical & Infectious Disease Hospital: According to the rise of Covid-19 cases in the last 4-5 days, it can be seen that within 1-2 weeks from now, we will be seeing a surge of Covid-19 patients being admitted in hospitals. Having served for more than two years during this Covid pandemic, we were able to map out a projection about two weeks ago that we might be seeing ten to twelve thousand cases per day by the end of January or the second week of Magh. However, we haven't seen many Covid cases that need hospitalization even during the rise in cases since the past few days. According to several studies done by WHO and CDC, the new Omicron variant is more contagious than previous variants; however, they are non-fatal with lesser symptoms.
Dr. Kijan Maharjan, Spokesperson of Sukraraj Tropical & Infectious Disease Hospital: Studies have shown that the Omicron variant, though less harmful, is more contagious. Due to that, even though the number of positive cases is increasing, the number of hospital admissions has not gone up. Therefore, the number of transmissions is likely to multiply even if there are fewer severe cases than the second wave. We will have a clearer view of the situation in 1-2 weeks.
2. How harmful will the third wave be for the nation?
Dr. Rawal: If the third wave turns out to be anything like the pandemic we faced in the last two years, there will be nothing good that will come out of a pandemic. It is not good news for society or as a nation. We do not expect a pandemic, but we need to be alert for it.
Dr. Maharjan: If the situation remains like the present and the number of severe cases is not high, and patients can be treated without being hospitalized, we will not be affected much. I believe that we will have a clearer understanding of which way we are headed in a few weeks.
3. Are smart lockdowns enough to prevent the third wave from occurring?
Dr. Rawal: Smart lockdown is just the beginning towards taking a step. However, there needs to be a proper regulatory body to ensure whether the government protocols are being followed promptly. We should ensure that huge crowds should be avoided at all costs, including various political parties' gatherings. The public has also stopped following proper measures because the fear has significantly dropped lower than previous. If the number of cases keeps rising, smart lockdown alone will not be enough, but I think it is a good starting step.
Dr. Maharjan: If people themselves are aware and are following the Covid protocols seriously, like isolating themselves as soon as any symptoms are seen, getting a PCR test immediately, and maintaining social distancing while using masks, smart lockdown can help in a great degree to lessen the spread of the virus. It'll be tough to stop the spread despite the smart lockdowns if people lack discipline.
4. How prepared are we medically for the third wave?
Nabaraj Gautam, Section Officer at Sukraraj Tropical & Infectious Disease Hospital: As a hospital, I believe that we are prepared for the third wave. We have learned a lot from our experience with the pandemic for the last two years. We have tried our best to fulfill the needs that were not met during the first and second waves of the pandemic. For example, we did not have oxygen tanks during the first wave. We realized in the second wave that this would not be enough. For the third wave, we have our very own oxygen plant. After the second wave, we now have an oxygen pipeline system connected to all beds so that oxygen can be regulated from one point. We have also increased the number of doctors and staff after the second wave. We have learned a lot as we have been fighting against Covid from the very beginning.
5. Do you think our society is prepared for a third pandemic wave?
Dr. Rawal: Being a doctor in a hospital that has faced two pandemics and being an individual member of society, I think that people are not ready. There are two groups of people, one group who has lost their dear ones to Covid-19 and the other group who did not really get affected by the pandemic and have not understood the gravity of the situation yet. Similarly, many people have already gotten vaccinated or are being vaccinated, and they feel they are 100% safe from the pandemic. If the cases keep rising, the lockdown will have a socio-economic impact on our nation when the economy has just started increasing slowly. I believe our activities will determine our future, and even right now, it's not too late to get started. We can keep getting vaccinated, maintain social distancing while wearing masks, etc. Our institute has provided vaccines for the past 45 days, but only after MoHP published a notice; people start showing up for vaccines, which generates a crowd in front of our gates. We need to be able to vaccinate the most number of people in the least amount of time. Still, if the people were aware of various vaccination booths and went there in time, overcrowding would never be an issue for vaccination.
Dr. Maharjan doesn't think people are ready for the third wave. People are still taking the pandemic lightly, especially after the news about Omicron being less harmful than the Delta virus. They still do not take Covid protocols seriously, and still, many people are yet to be vaccinated. So if people still do not take it seriously, we might have to face serious consequences.
6. Vaccines being provided right now are of no use for new variants of Covid 19, myth or truth?
Dr. Rawal: As of right now, I cannot accurately interpret whether these vaccines are helpful against the new variants since I am not an expert; maybe a virologist might be able to answer it better. According to some studies done by WHO and CDC in South Africa, the vaccines were effective to some extent for the new variants as well. However, we cannot say with 100% certainty that all the new cases are of the Omicron variant; they can either be a mix of Delta or Omicron variants. So I think the role of vaccines is still significant.
Dr. Maharjan: Studies show that vaccines are still very effective in helping people fight Covid. Vaccine builds your immunity to fight the virus, and it does not make you immune to it. It is observed that people who are entirely vaccinated are less likely to need hospitalization, even if they are infected with the virus. Only 30% of people who were immunized required hospitalization. Vaccines have helped a lot to bring the number of hospitalizations down. Thus, vaccines are still very much effective.
7. What precautions can be taken to decrease the severity of the possible third wave of the pandemic?
Dr. Rawal: Besides the lockdown and vaccination, taking proper preventive public health measures is essential. The symptoms are also different for this variant, such as being lethargic, throat discomfort, muscle pain, and feverish. These are mild symptoms compared to previous variants; however, since one person could potentially transmit it to 10 people, that person could be acting as a focal point.
Hence, taking PCR tests promptly will also prove significant when it comes to Omicron.
Dr. Maharjan: Apart from being vaccinated. Use of masks, social distancing, and isolation, I think providing vaccines at a local level might help lessen the transmission of the virus. Currently, the vaccine is being provided only at the central station. Providing it locally might help reduce crowds and, thus, lessen the transmission of the virus.