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Has Kent passed the Omicron peak?

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There are hopes the Omicron peak in Kent has passed as case numbers have fallen by 26% in a week.

The county's infection rate has dropped for five straight days, with almost 7,000 fewer positive tests on January 10 than the week before.

A map showing infection rates across Kent - the darker the colour, the higher the rate
A map showing infection rates across Kent - the darker the colour, the higher the rate

At the same time, the number of people with the virus in Kent's hospitals has started to level off, with just nine now needing a ventilator - down 40% in seven days.

Some scientists believe Omicron is the “first ray of light” in ensuring Covid becomes endemic and something we learn to live with.

The fall in cases comes after Kent saw record levels of positive tests throughout December as the more infectious variant took hold.

Since December 1 a staggering 107,642 people in the county have tested positive for Covid - almost a third of the entire infections recorded throughout the pandemic.

But latest figures show weekly cases are down in every single district in Kent, with all now recording a lower infection rate than the national average.

While the number of cases falling gives cause to be optimistic, a change in government rules could be a factor in the drop.

People with no symptoms no longer have to take a PCR test if they return a positive result on a lateral flow, so statisticians have to rely on them self-registering the infection.

Those who choose not to are potentially contributing to the drop in case numbers.

However, infection rates had started to fall before the new rules were introduced, and the picture in Kent's hospitals also now appears far less grim than feared.

There were concerns the number of Covid patients would surge further after a worrying 74% increase last week, from 234 to 407.

But this week that figure has risen by just two, while the number of a patients on a ventilator has dropped from 15 to nine.

This time last year there were 1,234 Covid patients in Kent, with 74 on a ventilator.

The improving picture nationally has led to suggestions the Plan B restrictions currently in place - including working from home where possible - could be dropped at the end of January.

Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (Spi-M), said last week that the virus may now become more like the common cold.

“The thing that might happen in the future is you may see the emergence of a new variant that is less severe, and ultimately, in the long term, what happens is Covid becomes endemic and you have a less severe version," he said.

"It’s very similar to the common cold that we’ve lived with for many years.

“We’re not quite there yet, but possibly Omicron is the first ray of light there that suggests that may happen in the longer term. It is, of course, much more transmissible than Delta was, which is concerning, but much less severe.

“Hopefully, as we move more towards the spring and we see the back of Omicron, we can get more inter-relationship of living with Covid as an endemic disease and protecting the vulnerable.

“Any variant that does emerge which is less severe, ultimately, in the longer term, is where we want to be.”

Dr Susan Hopkins, the UK Health Security Agency's chief medical adviser, says hospitals have been able to discharge patients “faster” due to Omicron being milder than previous coronavirus variants.

But she adds that, with about 15,500 people in hospital last week, the NHS remains under “a lot of pressure”, with some trusts “unable to do much of their elective care” - a situation exacerbated by staff absences.

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