Many people hospitalized in the Omicron surge are there for other reasons and have only mild COVID-19

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COVID-19 Italy, medics around a patient on a bed at a hospital in Rome
Medics around a COVID-19 patient in the ICU of the Institute of Clinical Cardiology in Rome, Italy, on December 30, 2021.ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images
  • Some patients counted in COVID hospitalization stats are there for other reasons.

  • These "incidental" cases were found to be prominent in England and South Africa.

  • Experts including Dr. Anthony Fauci have also pointed to the phenomenon in the US.

A significant proportion of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in recent weeks were admitted for other reasons, according to health officials and government data.

The exact scale of the phenomenon in the US is not recorded in federal statistics, but has been noted anecdotally.

And Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to the White House, described the phenomenon, specifically in children, in a Wednesday night interview with MSNBC.

Since all hospital admissions are tested for COVID-19, Fauci said, many are "hospitalized with COVID, as opposed to because of COVID." The real reason for hospitalization might be "a broken leg, or appendicitis, or something like that," he continued.

Video: White House to distribute millions of at-home COVID test kits

Julie Zauzmer Weil, a Washington Post reporter, said that a similar thing can happen with adults. Citing an unnamed DC-area health official, Weil wrote in a series of tweets that people with mild COVID who test positive are still counted in the headline hospitalization stats.

Other countries have produced data noting the same phenomenon of "incidental" COVID cases. In data published Friday by the UK National Health Service, 33% of the 8,321 COVID-positive cases in England on December 28 were admitted to the hospital for a different reason.

In a series of tweets posted earlier that week, Chris Hopson, the head of the the umbrella group NHS Providers, which represents individual parts of the health system, said that the level of incidental COVID admissions was a key factor in how senior managers were planning their hospital capacity.

—Chris Hopson (@ChrisCEOHopson) December 27, 2021

In South Africa, the first nation to record a surge in Omicron cases, a report from its Medical Research Council also found a high rate of incidental cases.

The council noted that in a study of a hospital complex in Tshwane, a city in the hard-hit Gauteng province, 76% of the 166 patients admitted between November 14 and 29 had incidental COVID cases.

While patients having COVID incidentally is less worrying than them having severe COVID, it does not mean that there is nothing to worry about.

David Strain, a senior clinical lecturer at the England's University of Exeter medical school, told The Guardian that incidental admission can still be concerning.

"We [have] seen many other people who have been otherwise stable [with] chronic diseases such as heart failure, ulcerative colitis etc that caught COVID and had a rapid deterioration," he told the outlet.

The complications of having COVID while also having other medical problems could still severely harm patients, Strain said.

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