COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — The highly contagious omicron variant is certainly driving Ohio’s latest spike in COVID-19 cases, but how will these new infections affect the disease’s worst result: deaths?

A growing body of research shows omicron cases are less severe than delta cases. A British government report last week, for example, found people with omicron are about half as likely to be hospitalized and about one-third as likely to need emergency care.

And an analysis of patients in Houston found those with omicron, as The New York Times wrote Wednesday, “were only about one-third as likely to need hospitalization as delta patients.”

Although case counts are quick to show the pandemic’s status in Ohio, death counts lag because they’re reported with a different system than cases and hospitalizations. Deaths are also reported only twice a week, usually Tuesday and Friday.

ODH has said a COVID-19 death can take up to six months to be accounted for, but it’s usually a matter of weeks.

Here’s what a look at the latest backdated numbers shows: Cases in Ohio have increased dramatically due to omicron since early December, and hospitalizations have been ticking up, too. But fatalities have yet to reflect those increases.

Record hospitalizations a foreboding challenge

As cases have increased in “this omicron tsunami,” ODH Director Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff told reporters Friday, so have hospitalizations, which are now “a very serious concern.”

“Our state is experiencing the highest number of COVID-19-driven inpatient hospitalizations, ICU admissions and patients on ventilators that we have seen throughout the entire pandemic,” he said.

Vanderhoff said Friday that 1 in 3 Ohio hospital patients has the coronavirus, and 9 in 10 of those COVID-positive patients are unvaccinated.

“While the data also shows that those infected with omicron are less likely to experience severe disease or death,” he said, with so many new infections and 40% of Ohioans still unvaccinated, “it’s little surprise that we’re seeing unprecedented numbers of hospitalizations.”

COVID-19 hospitalizations have also risen sharply in Franklin County in the past two weeks, Dr. Andrew Thomas, chief clinical officer at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told reporters Friday. And, he added, “the steep slope of that rise does not yet seem to be backing off.”

“Given the rise in total numbers of cases we’re seeing, even a smaller percentage of a larger number is still making for a larger number of people needing to be in the hospital,” he said.

Omicron accounts for more than 95% of new U.S. cases, according to Tuesday CDC data, which reflects the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. ODH’s genetic sequencing is a couple weeks behind (omicron is 24% of cases as of the two weeks ending Dec. 18), but state health leaders expect omicron to soon reveal as Ohio’s dominant strain.

Will deaths soar in Ohio? They didn’t in South Africa

Throughout the nearly two-year pandemic, COVID-19 has killed about 1 in every 72 Ohioans who have gotten infected, as about 1.4% of cases have resulted in deaths. And more than three in 10 coronavirus hospital patients have died.

The state passed 30,000 deaths on Friday with 398 reported for the past three days.

A positive outlook on a looming increase in deaths, however, may come from where omicron was first detected: South Africa. The country’s wave has subsided after cases began increasing in late November, and although cases shot up quickly, the nation’s presidency reported only “a marginal increase” in deaths.

New Year’s Day revellers and holidaymakers gather on a beach in Durban, South Africa, after the government lifted a COVID-19 restriction by removing the midnight-to-4am curfew. (Photo by RAJESH JANTILAL/AFP via Getty Images)

If South Africa is a bright light at the end of Ohio’s omicron tunnel, there may also be a faint light coming from inside the tunnel.

It took about 25-30 days from South Africa recognizing omicron as a problem until the country hit a peak, said Dr. Robert Wyllie, chief of medical operations at the Cleveland Clinic, and “that’s about the window we’re in in northern Ohio right now.”

The Cleveland and Akron/Canton areas have been “the tip of the spear” for Ohio’s cases since summer, Wyllie told reporters Friday, and the northeast region has received the most help from the National Guard.

But cases in Cuyahoga County have declined nearly 25% over the last couple weeks, he said, which hopefully means “hospitalizations subsequently — as a lagging indicator — start to go down.”

“As we look at the cases in Cuyahoga and in the surrounding counties, we’ve begun to peak,” he said.

Members of the Ohio National Guard administer COVID-19 tests at a drive through testing site on Jan. 5, 2022 in Akron, Ohio. (Photo by Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images)

Vanderhoff said he hopes Ohio will see omicron peak as quickly as it did in South Africa, but the nation’s population is about 10 years younger than Ohio’s.

Older citizens mean more are at risk for severe coronavirus infection, so Ohio is “more likely to see a lingering effect” of the omicron wave, Wyllie said, which may have “a little bit more severity.” Helping Ohio, however, is its vaccination rate being about 10 percentage points higher than South Africa’s.

Wyllie said he’s keeping his fingers crossed that Ohio sees a South Africa-like decline, even if it is more steady than sharp.

“I think we’ve got the first inkling of that in northern Ohio right now,” he said.

Vanderhoff said it’s too early to know for sure whether the omicron wave will drive fewer COVID-19 deaths than the delta wave, but he maintained a message that public health officials and experts have stressed for a year through variant after variant: vaccination is the key.

“It’s clear that COVID-19 vaccines remain a powerful shield against severe illness and death,” he said. “COVID is not going away. It’s with us for the long haul. And the best way to protect ourselves is to be up to date with vaccination.”