Boris Johnson reports U.K.’s first known death of patient with omicron variant

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LONDON — Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Monday that Britain had registered its first death of a patient with the omicron variant, while U.K. health officials warned that the new version of the coronavirus was spreading at jaw-dropping speed.

“I think the idea that this is somehow a milder version of the virus, that’s something we need to set on one side and just recognize the sheer pace at which it accelerates through the population,” Johnson told reporters during a visit to a vaccination clinic in London. He urged people to quickly increase their protection with a booster shot.

Long lines formed outside vaccination clinics Monday, with people waiting to get a first, second or third dose.

The prime minister’s office did not immediately offer any details about the person who died — age, vaccination status or any underlying conditions.It’s possible that this death is the first in the world to be officially tied to the new variant, though that in itself is of limited significance. There may have been others in which the virus wasn’t genetically sequenced to determine the variant involved.

The U.K. Health Security Agency said Monday that there were 10 patients in hospitals across England, ages 18 to 85, diagnosed with the omicron variant on or before admission, with the majority having received two doses of coronavirus vaccine.

Hospital admissions lag infections, and officials here worry that a coming crush of patients could overwhelm the National Health Service. The new strain is now spreading faster in Britain than in South Africa, where early cases were detected. And, unlike South Africa, Britain was already dealing with a surge of delta variant cases.

Reports from South Africa suggest that the omicron variant may be milder on average than the delta variant. But even a small portion of severe cases among a huge number of infections could strain British hospitals.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said Monday that hospitalizations and deaths are forecast to “dramatically increase” in the coming weeks.