Covid-19 Hospitalizations Reported in U.S. Hit New High – The Wall Street Journal

U.S. hospitals are caring for the highest number of patients with Covid-19 reported during the pandemic, according to federal government data, as the Omicron variant worsens pressures on the already strained facilities.

The U.S. seven-day average reached 140,576 people hospitalized with confirmed and suspected Covid-19 cases on Tuesday, more than the previous high recorded during the surge last winter, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services data.

Hospitalization numbers from early in the pandemic aren’t comprehensive enough to show levels from the earliest waves.

The tallies suggest that a new onslaught of patients is arriving at many hospitals that have been struggling with staffing shortages and heavy caseloads, forcing doctors, nurses and responders to make even tougher decisions about who should get care.

“Somebody somewhere is calling 911, and they are waiting longer for an ambulance,” said Gerald Maloney, chief medical officer for the Geisinger health system’s hospitals in Pennsylvania.

Scientists are using automation, real-time analysis and pooling data from around the world to rapidly identify and understand new coronavirus variants before the next one spreads widely. Photo Illustration: Sharon Shi

The hospitalizations also reflect the breakneck pace of the current Covid-19 wave. Many people are showing up at hospitals for other reasons, some hospital and state data show, and then testing positive for Covid-19.

Omicron, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated accounts for 98% of the country’s Covid-19 cases, is likely to blame for most recent hospitalizations, though the government data doesn’t break down the variant responsible.

Signs suggest the highly transmissible new variant tends to cause milder disease and puts fewer patients in intensive care than earlier strains. The volume of hospitalizations, hospital officials and doctors say, reflects the variant’s contagiousness.

“It’s a numbers game,” said Michelle Prickett, a pulmonary and critical-care specialist at Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

By last week, the 11 hospitals in the larger Northwestern Medicine system had 16% more Covid-19 patients than in the last peak, hit in November 2020, and the rate is expected to grow, a spokeswoman said.

Intensive-care patients in Dr. Prickett’s hospital still need treatment for serious Covid-19 cases. “We are still seeing people struggling, we are still seeing the destruction of the lungs,” she said.

The hospitalizations record comes as reported Covid-19 cases in nursing homes hit a high among staff, and a near record among residents.

Medical staff waiting with patients in the emergency room at a hospital in San Diego this month.

Photo: K.C. Alfred/Zuma Press

The Journal analysis of hospitalization data looked at Covid-19 cases that were confirmed and suspected. Most of the reported hospitalizations are confirmed and averaged about 132,800 in the last seven days, which are in record territory, the federal data show.

The data don’t distinguish between people hospitalized for Covid-19, and those who are hospitalized for other reasons but test positive for the virus.

The high amount of Omicron circulating in communities is contributing to the number of people testing positive after routine screening, doctors say. It may also be a factor in the seriousness of their conditions.

Among a near-record 514 Covid-19 patients in the Jackson Health System’s Miami-area hospitals Monday, for example, an estimated 54% were admitted mainly for non-Covid-19 reasons, the system said. The rate hit 27% at the peak of the Delta surge in August, the system said.

In New York state, counts of new admissions from two weeks starting in mid-December show patients admitted for other reasons but who also had Covid-19 accounted for 38% and 47% of the totals, up from less than a quarter during the same period a year earlier.

At the same time, the rate of pediatric patients recently admitted for non-Covid-19 reasons who test positive is down from a year ago, when far fewer children were hospitalized, New York data show.

The state health department advised against discounting as incidental or harmless Covid-19 infections found after people were hospitalized, saying the virus could be a contributing cause to the medical issue prompting hospitalization.

“People who are getting hospitalized right now, because we are so short of staff and capacity to care for everyone, they’re very sick or they’ve been in a significant trauma,” said Nancy Foster, vice president for quality and patient safety policy at the American Hospital Association. “They need to be in the hospital.”

Hospitalizations have been fueled by record case numbers. By Monday, the U.S. seven-day average for new cases topped 750,000, according to Johns Hopkins University, about tripling the prior peak reached a year ago.

In the current wave, hospitals already under strain from heavy caseloads have faced an increase in admissions while growing numbers of nurses and other critical workers call out sick with Covid-19.

Hackensack Meridian Health in New Jersey, the state’s largest system with 17 hospitals, recently had between 750 and 1,000 of its 35,000 employees out sick with Covid-19, said Daniel Varga, the chief physician executive there.

“The challenge has just been the sheer numbers of folks that have been affected, both patients who are coming in but also team members and physicians who are there to care for these folks,” Dr. Varga said.

A drive-through Covid-19 testing site in Louisville, Ky.

Photo: Jon Cherry/Getty Images

The good news, he said, is today’s Covid-19 patients tend to be younger, less sick and have shorter hospital stays compared with patients Hackensack Meridian saw during its high point for Covid-19 hospitalizations in spring 2020.

Omicron hasn’t triggered a record for those who need critical care. The seven-day average for confirmed and suspected adult ICU cases reached 23,334 on Tuesday, about 5,900 off the record from a year ago.

Still, staffing shortages have led some hospitals to close beds to new patients, while others haven’t been able to add capacity to keep up with demand, hospital officials and doctors say.

Patients wait for hospital beds in crowded emergency rooms at some facilities, while ambulances wait longer for patients to be retrieved. Some hospitals are putting off nonessential surgeries.

About 17% of Covid-19 patients recently hospitalized at Mass General Brigham’s hospitals in Massachusetts and New Hampshire were in intensive-care beds, down from 23% during the peak of the surge roughly a year ago, said Ron Walls, the hospital system’s chief operating officer.

In April 2020, the figure was 35%, at its peak.

Dr. Walls said he believed the declining share of Covid-19 patients who need intensive care is likely a result of improved treatment and an increase of people who have been vaccinated.

There are also signs fewer patients need help from ventilators. Across HonorHealth’s six Arizona hospitals, for example, around 11% of patients with Covid-19 this month have required a ventilator, down from 15% in late December, said James Whitfill, a physician and the six-hospital system’s chief transformation officer.

Yet unvaccinated patients can become seriously ill, physicians said. Less than 1% of patients with Covid-19 recently in HonorHealth’s Arizona hospitals had gotten a booster shot, Dr. Whitfill said. About 85% are completely unvaccinated, he said.

Covid-19 deaths, a lagging indicator, were recently averaging about 1,650 a day, according to Johns Hopkins University data, though holiday-reporting disruptions have made the recent trend difficult to see. The U.S. topped 2,000 deaths a day in September during the Delta surge and 3,000 daily deaths early last year.

The Omicron Variant

Write to Jon Kamp at jon.kamp@wsj.com and Melanie Evans at Melanie.Evans@wsj.com

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