Andrew Pawson, 30, a positive coronavirus disease (COVID-19) patient who is recovering from over a month in isolation, holds his wife Isobel’s hand in his room at Memorial Hospital in Rexburg, Idaho, United States, Jan. October 2021.
Shannon Stapleton | Reuters
Covid-19 hospital admissions are on the rise again in the US, even as health officials grapple with news that the Omicron variant has been discovered in the country.
It is still too early for omicron to influence the number of cases or hospital admissions in the USA, where the delta variant still accounts for more than 99% of all new cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Although the country is still a long way from the peak of the Delta Wave in early September, when more than 100,000 patients with the virus were hospitalized, severe cases with colder weather in the north and people have rallied to celebrate major U.S. holidays.
About 56,000 Americans are being hospitalized with Covid-19, according to a seven-day average of Health Department data through Wednesday, an 8% increase from the previous week and 20% from the country’s most recent low on November 10.
The surge in hospital admissions follows the recent surge in infections in the country. Average daily cases peaked at more than 172,000 per day in mid-September before declining sharply and then stagnating at high levels between 70,000 and 75,000 new cases per day for nearly three weeks through early November, as compiled by Johns Hopkins University Show data. Then cases rose again, hitting an average of nearly 96,000 a day on November 24, before the Thanksgiving holiday disrupted data reporting practices in many states.
Most states reported no case or death numbers on Thanksgiving, according to a Hopkins-kept list, and many delayed reporting on the holiday weekend. Combined with the fact that numerous states have reduced their daily Covid data reports to just weekdays or even once a week, it could take days or weeks for local authorities to clear test residue and report new cases that occurred in days around occurred on the holiday.
Because of this, reported state and national Covid cases and deaths typically decline sharply in the days following a public holiday and then increase as residue is cleared. For example, the most recent U.S. average has dropped to about 86,000 daily cases by Wednesday, which is likely to increase over the next week.
In the past, hospital stays, which measure the number of patients in hospital beds with Covid, have been more stable and less affected by reporting interruptions during the holiday periods.
A combination of colder weather driving people indoors, dry air, vacation travel and partying are some of the reasons behind this recent exacerbation of the outbreak, said Dr. Bruce Y. Lee, Professor of Health Policy and Management at the City University of New York School of Public Health. Some Americans who had Covid at the beginning of the pandemic or who had been vaccinated in the spring and haven’t had a booster shot may also have declining immunity, he added.
At the same time, vaccination rates in the US have increased, but at a slower pace. Nearly 60% of Americans are fully vaccinated, according to CDC data on Tuesday. However, it has been almost four months since that value hit the 50% mark in early August. It took the country a little over two months to go from 40% to 50% and less than a month to go from 30% to 40%.
“Our vaccination numbers are still not where they should be and I think, despite our best efforts, we are facing a future where it looks like a lot of people who are not vaccinated have no intention of doing so get vaccinated, “said Dr. Lisa Maragakis, Senior Director of Infection Prevention for the Johns Hopkins Health System.
That will make it harder for the US to get Covid to a place where it’s “endemic,” Maragaki’s annual basis explained.
“That won’t be the case as long as we have large pockets of unvaccinated people,” she added.
These trends were there even before news of the Omicron variant surfaced, which South Africa reported about a week ago. As the global scientific community studies the strain’s transmissibility and whether it can cause serious illness or evade some protection from vaccines, nothing has changed about what the US must do to reduce the risk of Covid, according to Lee.
“It’s a reminder that we have to keep all these precautions because we thought a winter wave was coming anyway,” he said. Vaccination and booster vaccinations, wearing face masks, social distancing if necessary, and maintaining good ventilation remain important tools in the fight against the spread of the virus.
As throughout the pandemic, the current outbreak varies regionally, with hotspots shifting from the southern United States, where the Delta wave hit the earliest and strongest in summer, to the Midwest. Hospital admissions are highest on a population-adjusted basis in the states of the Midwest, where they have increased by 31% in the past two weeks.
“Some regions of the US are not feeling it,” said Maragakis, “but when I speak to colleagues in Utah or Michigan or several other states, they really are in a crisis situation.”
Michigan’s more than 4,300 hospitalized Covid patients give the state the highest rate of Covid hospital admissions per capita in the country, according to a CNBC analysis of HHS data. Patient traffic, staffing challenges and the duration of the pandemic have made this wave “more challenging than previous increases,” said Dr. Darryl Elmouchi, president of Spectrum Health West Michigan, a system of 14 hospitals in the western part of the state.
The 464 Covid patients in Spectrum Health hospitals on Wednesday are the system’s highest rating yet, as the hospitals are so full that there is limited scope for moving patients who need more care to other beds across the system, for Covid or more typical health problems like heart attack or cancer.
The vast majority of people hospitalized with Covid are unvaccinated, up from 91% at the end of last week, Elmouchi said. There are more breakthrough infection cases, but for the most part these do not result in the need for intensive care.
Spectrum Health recorded about 140 Covid deaths in November, a high number but, despite this year’s higher hospital admissions, lower than last December’s record of 192.
The federal government has deployed two Department of Defense medical teams to Michigan in response to a request from Governor Gretchen Whitmer for additional staff, one of which will work with Spectrum Health.
It will be some time before any impact on virus transmission from Thanksgiving gatherings becomes apparent in the national Covid numbers. In addition to the complications of reporting holiday data, it will take between two and four weeks for infections to be detected and reported based on the time it takes people to develop symptoms, get a positive test, and have their cases published will be state and local systems, Lee said.
Covid cases and deaths in the US peaked after the 2020 holiday season, with an average of more than 250,000 infections and 3,400 deaths per day in January 2021.