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As COVID-19's omicron variant continues to spread across Monroe County, hospitals are becoming overrun with patients, with no suggestion that this wave will wane anytime soon.
With daily rates of the coronavirus dwarfing anything seen throughout the commonwealth during the pandemic, Monroe is no holdout: on Jan. 7, the county reported 633 cases of COVID-19 on the same day Pennsylvania as a whole reported 33,381 cases, establishing new records respectively. Naturally, hospitalizations, intensive care unit placements, and the use of ventilators have increased as well.
As of Thursday afternoon, Monroe counts 123 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, including 14 in intensive care units and nine on ventilators.
The number of intensive care unit beds over a two-week moving average has dropped down to two — the lowest rate of the entire pandemic. Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized — also measured through a moving two-week average — has escalated to record highs of 95.6, beating out the height of the pandemic's earlier waves. Furthermore, the two-week moving average number of patients on ventilators has steadily crept up to 6.1, a number not seen since almost a year ago.
According to Dr. Alex Benjamin, Chief Infection Control and Prevention Officer at Lehigh Valley Health Network, conditions for northeastern Pennsylvania hospitals are problematic at the moment, and could easily become worse for the unvaccinated, including children.
"Hospitalizations continue to increase steadily. We are nearing the peak of hospitalizations in last winter’s surge, and it is possible we will surpass it." He said. "The majority of COVID patients in the hospital remain unvaccinated (about 80%), and we are seeing a smaller percentage with breakthrough infections, especially among those who have not received booster vaccine doses.
"The number of kids hospitalized for COVID is also increasing, and kids admitted with COVID now represent almost one-third of the pediatric admissions, some of which require ICU-level care." Benjamin said. "Notably, of the kids hospitalized for COVID right now who are of an age where they could be vaccinated, none of them is vaccinated."
Dr. Jeffrey Jahre, St. Luke’s Senior Vice President of Medical & Academic Affairs and Section Chief Emeritus of Infectious Diseases, described the omicron spike as "our biggest surge to date."
"The number of COVID inpatients across the network is about 375, compared to our previous peak of 285 a year ago. The vast majority of new cases are omicron," Jahre said.
While the omicron variant has certainly been a key player in this wave, many individuals — and public figures — have characterized the strain as less deadly or concerning at all, likening it to a bad cold.
However, medical professionals continue to advise the public that omicron can, in fact, lead to hospitalizations, especially among those who have not received a COVID-19 vaccine.
"Omicron can be a very serious and even deadly disease for some patients, especially those with underlying health conditions," Jahre said. "Additionally, more children are falling ill. Even if the proportion of infected people who become critically ill is lower compared to that of previous variants, because Omicron is so transmissible and so many people are being infected, the net number of people requiring hospitalization and critical care remains very high."
Maggi Barton, deputy press secretary of the Department of Health, said that the omicron now dominates COVID-19 cases, and due to the fact that it spreads so easily, percent positivity in Pennsylvania has gone from 15% to 24% to 34% over the course of the past few weeks.
And the further omicron and other variants spread, the greater chance there is that a new variant will emerge.
"The (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) has not shared specific evidence to suggest the omicron is not as severe as other variants. However, given the large incidence rates of spread, it has created a harmful spread to more people who may be more vulnerable and require hospitalizations," Barton said. "Science tells us that the more the COVID-19 virus multiplies, the more likely it will mutate and form new variants. COVID-19 and all of its variants are still a threat in our communities."
Lately, LVHN has seen record-setting rates of patients at their outpatient and urgent care centers," Benjamin said, "averaging nearly 10,000 encounters per day over the past 2 weeks... and a few days ago, our ExpressCARE locations had 2,100 encounters in a single day."
"As we are witnessing, even a less severe variant can put a tremendous burden on all aspects of healthcare: hospitals, urgent care, laboratories, pharmacies, etc.," Benjamin said. "In the winter, we are particularly aware that mild or moderate respiratory illnesses can send susceptible individuals to the hospital, for example, patients with emphysema and COPD."
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Furthermore, medical professionals themselves are not immune to COVID-19: both Benjamin and Jahre reported that staff have tested positive for the virus, and while in most cases the symptoms are relatively mild, this can lead to issues with scheduling to fill in for those who must isolate.
But the variant is not limited to spread in medical settings, Benjamin said: schools, grocery stores, and other locations with heavy traffic are bound to be subject to rapid transmissibility, which can also affect households, especially multi-generational homes, where residents could be even more vulnerable to the virus.
As such, medical professionals are encouraging patients with symptoms to remain isolated, and only traveling to receive medical care or testing, in order to protect further spread across the community.
Vaccinations continue to be the most effective method to prevent COVID-19, Barton said, though a layered strategy — including a booster shot, masking, and testing when a patient experiences symptoms — will be key to overcoming the current spike.
And while the old standards are a solid base strategy to protect against this wave, limiting exposure to others will also play a fundamental role in protecting people against a variant that is not yet completely understood — even if this particular variant is "milder."
"Omicron is so infectious that, despite the lower likelihood of serious illness for an individual, the risk is that so many people will catch it that the end result will be a lot of very sick people, including too many who will die of the disease. We still don’t know what overall impact of omicron will be," Jahre said.
— Brian Myszkowski covers the COVID-19 pandemic in northeast Pennsylvania and is Senior Reporter at the Pocono Record. Reach him by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Pocono Record: Omicron leads to rising hospital rates in Monroe County