President López Obrador asserted this week that the omicron variant of the coronavirus only causes mild disease in vaccinated people and described the highly contagious strain as “un covidcito” or “a little COVID.”
Deputy Health Minister Hugo López-Gatell, Mexico’s coronavirus czar, compared the new strain to the common cold.
But the World Health Organization (WHO) and its affiliate, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), take a considerably different view.
“While omicron causes less severe disease than delta, it remains a dangerous virus, particularly for those who are unvaccinated,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a media briefing on Wednesday.
“Almost 50,000 deaths a week is 50,000 deaths too many,” he said, referring to global fatalities.
“Learning to live with this virus does not mean we can, or should, accept this number of deaths. We must not allow this virus a free ride or wave the white flag, especially when so many people around the world remain unvaccinated.”
Sylvain Aldighieri, a COVID-19 incident manager for PAHO, rejected the idea that omicron is comparable to a common cold, especially when a lot of people are not fully vaccinated and others live with health conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19 complications.
“An omicron infection can become serious or very serious and therefore we shouldn’t relax at this time. .. We must maintain all the control and distancing measures,” he said.
According to a Mexican Health Ministry analysis, Aldighieri noted, Mexico’s fourth omicron-fueled wave of infections is predicted to be larger than the third delta-fueled one.
“… In Mexico we’re seeing a curve of exponential growth in cases,” the PAHO official said, noting that a new daily record of more than 33,000 cases – almost certainly a vast undercount due to a low testing rate – was set Tuesday.
Via its stoplight system, the federal government this week raised the coronavirus risk level in several states, but none is at the red-light maximum risk level and there is little or no appetite for heavy-handed restrictions at both the federal and state level.
Authorities appear resigned to omicron spreading unabated in the coming weeks, and apparently expect – or at least hope – that the country’s relatively high vaccination rate will prevent the health system from being overwhelmed and stop COVID deaths from spiraling.
Mexico’s official death toll is already above 300,000 – the fifth highest total in the world – and continues to climb, albeit at a significantly slower rate than that seen earlier in the pandemic. But hospitalizations and fatalities typically increase weeks after surges in case numbers, meaning that the second half of January and February will likely reveal whether the optimism of federal officials such as the president is misguided or not.
López Obrador, currently isolating after testing positive for COVID for a second time on Monday, downplayed the threat of the coronavirus at the start of the pandemic and is now minimizing the danger posed by omicron, even as Mexico continues to record hundreds of pandemic deaths per day.
“… Let’s not be scared. Fortunately, this is a variant that doesn’t have the level of danger of the delta variant,” he said during an appearance via video link at his regular news conference on Tuesday.
“… Fortunately, I believe that we [people infected with omicron] won’t need to be admitted to hospital nor are we going to suffer the loss of human lives. This [variant] is different, this virus is on its way out… and things will normalize very soon. We have to keep doing our activities, taking care of ourselves, of course, but let’s not be alarmed.”