‘The situation in hospitals is grim’: States face brutal virus fallout
Nearly 30,000 people currently in hospital have tested positive for Covid-19, the CDC says, up 30% since Thanksgiving — with New York, Arizona and New Mexico among the hardest hit.
“The situation in hospitals is grim,” said David Scrase, secretary of the New Mexico Department of Health and Human Services. “The death toll from this very serious virus continues to rise and will hopefully create a sense of urgency among individuals and families to think about having access to vaccines and also treatments, if you are tested positive for coronavirus.”
Just over 13% of Americans over the age of 5 have received their updated booster shot since its release in September — including about a third of older adults, the group most likely to be hospitalized, according to the CDC. The number of cases in nursing homes has also increased by more than 30% since Thanksgiving.
And while the Omicron subvariants currently circulating are less lethal than previous variants, around 426 people die, on average, from Covid-19 every day – an increase of nearly 62% from last week, according to the CDC.
“Most of the population – unfortunately – have forgotten about Covid-19 and moved on. As a result, we are seeing an increase in cases and an increase in hospitalizations, and that worries me,” said Ali Mokdad, a professor of global health at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. “At this time with the rise of influenza, RSV and Covid, our healthcare professionals are exhausted.”
In Louisiana, state health officials recommend people consider getting tested before attending holiday gatherings.
In Mississippi, the state has dropped to 65 intensive care beds and is now transferring some patients to other states, although Tennessee and Alabama have stopped taking out-of-state transfers.
In Arizona, hospitals have asked the state for additional resources, such as pediatric cribs.
And in Oregon, Governor Kate Brown on Wednesday signed an executive order in response to the RSV, influenza and Covid-19 outbreaks.
“The situation facing our hospitals is extremely serious,” said Dean Sidelinger, Oregon state health officer and epidemiologist. “Hospitals are overwhelmed and don’t have enough beds to treat everyone the way they are used to.”
Health officials believe RSV may have already peaked, but influenza and Covid continue to pose major challenges to the healthcare system. The flu has hit the southern hemisphere early, hard and fast this year – a trend some experts believe the northern hemisphere should follow – but how hard Covid is hitting this year remains unclear.
“These curves are getting steeper every week around the flu, Covid-19 and other respiratory viruses,” California Health and Human Services Agency Secretary Mark Ghaly said. “Taken separately, these infections are manageable, but when they all come together, the difficulty posed to the system is quite extreme – and we are seeing that now.”
Ghaly said the total number of hospitalizations for Covid-19 and the flu in California would likely rise from 6,100 this week to 10,000 by the end of the year or early January.
While health officials hope the population’s level of immunity to infection and vaccination means this winter’s surge won’t be as severe, they remain concerned about the impact of the virus on the elderly and immunocompromised – especially given the low absorption of the bivalent booster this fall.
“When we break it down in terms of age groups, the elderly have the highest case rate and we see an upward trend in hospitalizations,” said Jennifer Dillaha, director of the health department. from Arkansas. “This is concerning because typically when hospitalizations increase, reported deaths also increase later on.”
The Biden administration recently announced a six-week campaign to increase Covid-19 vaccination rates before the end of the year, and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky warned on Monday that the rise the number of cases and hospitalizations is ‘worrying’ as people prepare to gather across generations for the holidays.
“If you are over 65 or 70 and have underlying health conditions that increase your risk and you have not been vaccinated, you are at great risk and should take all possible precautions,” said Eric Toner, senior partner at The Johns. Hopkins Center for Health Security.
But the problem is bigger than Covid. According to CDC data, only about 26% of adults had been vaccinated against the flu by the end of October.
Rachel Herlihy, Colorado state epidemiologist, said flu hospitalization rates are “pretty unique, severe, and early for us compared to other flu seasons.”
“It’s not just the challenge of Covid-19, it’s flu and RSV piled on top of Covid that presents a challenge to our healthcare system,” she said.
Public health experts say that while the flu poses the biggest risk to urgent care facilities and hospital emergency departments, Covid is still a bigger threat to intensive care units than the flu. With healthcare staff thinning out over the past two years, they said hospitals would not have the resources to deal with another serious Delta-like variant that causes more severe disease.
“The disease triad is terrible now – but it’s a better situation compared to the peaks of Covid,” said Irwin Redlener, director of the Pandemic Resource and Response Initiative at Columbia University. “If we hadn’t had Covid before, this winter would have been very overwhelming for doctors, nurses and parents. We are talking about a very serious increase in respiratory diseases in general. Compared to the worst times with Covid, it’s probably better. Compared to a typical winter season, it is significantly worse.
Even with the wave to come, public health officials say their message hasn’t changed: they advise people to wash their hands, get vaccinated, stay home when sick, and take extra precautions like Covid screening or masking around vulnerable family members.
“This is another year where we should probably have Zoom birthdays and Christmases,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. “If you don’t, then get fully vaccinated, and I think you’re fine. There is a risk, but I think it is a reasonable risk and a rational risk. But if you have vulnerable family members, be careful.