Hospitalizations up sharply in South African province where omicron variant detected

Coronavirus hospitalizations are sharply increasing in a South African province that has been identified as an early hot spot of the omicron variant, raising concerns about the new strain as health officials work to learn more about its transmissibility and severity.

The Gauteng province — which includes Johannesburg, the largest city in South Africa — has seen hospitalizations spike by almost 400 percent since the beginning of November, according to NBC News.

During the week ending Nov. 6, hospitalizations in the province rose from 120 to 580, according to data from South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), cited by NBC News.

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Hospitalizations, however, have hardly increased in other provinces in South Africa, NBC News noted. Large spikes were only discerned in two of the nine territories in recent months.

Waasila Jassat, a public-health specialist at the NICD, however, said the proportion of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 and been hospitalized over the past two weeks in one part with previous waves of infection in South Africa which were powered by other variants, according to The Wall Street Journal.

The institute, in a statement on Friday, said the variant had been detected in the province “at relatively high frequency.” It also said the strain “possesses a high number of mutations previously seen” in other COVID-19 variants of interest or concern.

The NICD is part of the group of researchers and government institutions that initially reported the discovery of the variant to the World Health Organization, NBC News noted.

South Africa has reported more than 33,000 new COVID-19 cases and more than 230 deaths in the past week, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Roughly 28 percent of the country's 60 million person population has been vaccinated against COVID-19, according to NBC News.

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The omicron variant has already spread to parts of the globe including Canada, the United Kingdom, Israel and Japan. 

The WHO labeled the omicron strain a variant of concern last week, and health officials have since been working to gather information to learn more about the highly mutated strain.

Health experts are particularly interested in learning if existing vaccines will still protect against illness from the latest COVID-19 variant.