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With coronavirus cases soaring, Denmark has bumped up closing time for restaurants and bars. But groups still congregate, indoors and outdoors, in many of Copenhagen’s canal-lined neighborhoods.
With coronavirus cases soaring, Denmark has bumped up closing time for restaurants and bars. But groups still congregate, indoors and outdoors, in many of Copenhagen’s canal-lined neighborhoods. (Chico Harlan/Washington Post )

Early benchmarks from Denmark on infections and hospitalizations are providing grounds for guarded optimism that highly vaccinated countries might be able to weather the omicron wave.

The developments, coupled with Denmark's speedy rollout of booster shots, have raised hopes the country can avoid the dire surge for which it has been bracing.

"It's too early to relax, but it's encouraging that we are not following the worst-case scenario," said Tyra Grove Krause, the chief epidemiologist at Denmark's State Serum Institute.

Denmark's detailed, nationwide program for coronavirus testing and analysis gives its scientists a trove of real-time data about the pandemic. Because of that - and because it was one of the first countries outside of Africa to witness omicron's explosive potential - it has turned into a European bellwether for what to expect with the omicron variant.

And over the last week, the country has fared better than it was expecting. After surging to record-breaking levels, the number of daily cases has stabilized. Officials recorded 12,500 cases on Thursday, compared to 11,000 late last week.

More important, hospitalizations have come in - so far - on the very low end of what was projected. A week ago, Denmark's government science institute was said daily new coronavirus hospital admissions could range between 120 and 250 patients by Christmas Eve. In recent days, daily admissions have hung around 125.

"That is quite promising," Grove Krause said.

The early signals from Denmark do not provide any direct measure on the severity of the variant, one of the key questions in this phase of the pandemic. But they track with other emerging data and studies from Britain and South Africa that suggest omicron is less likely to lead to hospitalization than the delta variant.

Scientists caution that there are still many uncertainties, and that even if omicron is less likely to cause hospitalization, its increased transmissibility means countless sicknesses and disruptions. The virus could also spread so widely that it nonetheless leads to an influx at hospitals.

Concerns remain about the health system in Denmark, Grove Krause said, because omicron infections are still disproportionately concentrated among the young. For now, Grove Krause said, temporary school closures and social precautions have helped slow the spread - but the country could still see a spike after holiday gatherings that bring together the young and old.

Even as cases have slowed, there are other signs of omicron's potential to cause chaos. Over the last two weeks, the number of cases among health care workers has more than doubled. A weekly government monitoring report said there had also been two omicron outbreaks in nursing homes.

Since omicron emerged in November, scientists have been racing to understand the implications and make sense of a variant that is moving far more quickly than its predecessors.

A few data points emerged this week, with one Scottish study suggesting the risk of hospitalization was almost 60 percent less with omicron than delta. Another analysis, conducted by Imperial College London, said people with omicron cases were 20 percent less likely to go the hospital, and 40 percent less likely to be hospitalized overnight. And South Africa, epicenter of the first apparent outbreak, has seen much lower hospitalization rates than in other waves.

But it remains unclear whether trends from South Africa - where demographics skew younger - will play out in other parts of the world. It's also unclear whether and to what extent omicron's reduced severity is a feature of the virus itself, or rather a sign of population-level immunity stemming from vaccinations and prior infections.

Compared with delta, omicron is far better at evading vaccines and causing infections in those who have already been inoculated. But Denmark's experience shows that a rapid booster rollout might be able to nonetheless help cut down rising infection numbers. A team of scientists at the State Serum Institute said in a research paper this week that Pfizer-BioNTech booster shots appeared to provide a 55 percent protection against infections, compared against cases from those who had received only two doses.

Even if that level of protection dips over time, boosters "can help us through the next months," Grove Krause said.

According to Our World in Data, Denmark has issued the most per capita booster shots of any European Union country. Denmark said in its latest monitoring report, released Thursday, that 36.8 percent of its population had been boosted, more than double the level from two weeks earlier. Overall, 77.2 percent of the country's population has received at least two doses.

Denmark also carefully tracks hospitalization rates, comparing cases for delta and omicron. Between Nov. 22 and Dec. 17, the hospitalization rate was higher for delta cases: 1 percent, compared with 0.6 percent. The hospitalization numbers include both those who tested positive before arriving, as well as those who tested positive within 48 hours after admittance.

But for now, because the omicron cases are skewed among the young, scientists say an outright comparison is premature.

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