Czech government orders massive testing as Czechs brace for Omicron wave

Although Covid numbers in the Czech Republic have been steadily dropping for over a month now, experts warn that the country faces a massive wave of Omicron infections in the coming weeks. In an effort to phase-out the spread of the epidemic, the government has ordered massive testing in companies and institutions of both vaccinated and unvaccinated employees.

“The quiet before the storm” is how Health Minister Vlastimil Válek described the present lull in the Covid epidemic. Speaking after Wednesday’s cabinet meeting at which ministers discussed an effective strategy to keep the health sector from collapsing, Mr. Válek said that the Omicron wave is likely to start gathering force at the start of the New Year and should peak in the last week of January or first week of February.

At present, the number of new Covid cases detected daily ranges from seven to nine thousand, however over the holidays the number of tests undertaken has dropped significantly. The share of the Omicron variant among them ranges in different regions.

So far, laboratories reported 108 cases of Omicron between December 19 - 26, and 351 new cases the week after. Although that might not seem like a great deal, experts are certain Omicron is in the stage of community spread and warn that these numbers could be misleading given the drop in tests and the lighter symptoms accompanying Omicron. Either way, they expect Omicron to start spreading like wildfire among the population in the first weeks of January.

Photo: Michaela Danelová,  Czech Radio

The government has ordered twice-weekly testing in schools as of January 2, and companies and institutions will have to test all employees, even those with a booster shot, twice a week as of mid-January to isolate outbreaks.

Given that Omicron has a shorter incubation (3 days) and infection period (2 days before first symptoms appear and three days after) the government is also considering shortening self-isolation and quarantine periods, as well as the interval between recovering from the disease and getting vaccinated. The quarantine period could be cut from 10 days to five, after which the person could return to work if they have no symptoms and would have to wear a respirator everywhere for another five days.

The government is also pushing ahead with vaccinations as the only effective form of protection from a severe course of the infection and hospitalization. Over 2.2 million people have received a booster shot in this country, with around 50 thousand more being administered every day. In the over 70s and high-risk groups that’s over 60 percent of the population. Experts say it’s not enough by far and leaves millions of people vulnerable.

The Institute of Health Information and Statistics has presented two likely scenarios for the approaching Omicron wave – a realistic and crisis scenario. The realistic scenario would be if Omicron spread largely among the unvaccinated groups of the population, in which case there would be around 15, 000 new cases a day. On the other hand, a massive spread throughout the population could see around 50,000 new infections a day. Even with a smaller share of hospitalizations than with Delta, this is something the health sector would find it very hard to handle.