COVID-related hospitalizations in the U.S. reached new highs over the past two weeks as the Omicron variant continues sweeping through the nation.
Hospitalizations generally lag confirmed case counts by a couple of weeks. Hospitalization data from the Omicron wave may be inflated by so-called "incidental patients" — those who were hospitalized for something other than COVID-19 and tested positive while admitted — but that is largely irrelevant if hospitals are overwhelmed.
“Remember that cases are the first to happen, and hospitalizations happened a few weeks later,” Dr. Adam Brown, an emergency room physician and COVID-19 National Task Force Chair, said on Yahoo Finance Live (video above). “I expect to see that number continuing to rise over the next couple of weeks, which is frankly quite frightening. So we need to do a number of things in our communities, especially where the virus is spreading significantly, to reduce transmission.”
“I don’t suggest throwing our hands upright yet,” Brown said. “But it’s complicated. What I will say is that any time there is a public health type of emergency or long-standing crisis like we have had, there is not going to be a silver bullet. There has to be a multi-pronged approach. So we need to implement those pieces of the puzzle where we can while we’re waiting for other things to come in supply.”
Hospitals inundated with COVID patients
The rise in hospitalizations is troubling for several reasons.
The surge indicates that there’s still a significant portion of the population — mostly unvaccinated — that is being severely impacted by the highly transmissible Omicron strain. According to the CDC, unvaccinated individuals are 20 times as likely to die from the virus.
And the influx of patients surging into ERs and intensive care units puts a strain on already overwhelmed hospital systems, many of which are concurrently dealing with staff shortages related to their own employees contracting COVID-19.
“That’s one of the reasons why I think we’re seeing a more concerted effort in changing the guidelines around masking to an upgraded mask like a KN95 or an N95 mask, and also increasing testing capabilities,” Brown said. “Because the more or the less people that get the virus, the less people that inundate our hospitals once they’re sick.”
Testing has become a crucial part of mitigating the spread of COVID. The Biden administration announced that starting on Jan. 15, insurers will be required to cover the cost of eight at-home COVID tests per covered individual per month, on top of an unlimited amount of coverage for being tested as ordered by a health care provider.
“Some areas, like here in Washington D.C., have implemented a citywide policy of distributing tests in libraries, as well as in firehouses to go in concert with what the Biden administration is planning to do with testing,” Brown said. “So when you take all of these things together — vaccines, testing, masking, ventilation — those can significantly reduce down the spread. But any one of those things alone is not going to prevent the transmission of the virus.”
Brown stressed the importance of getting vaccinated and boosted against the coronavirus.
Currently, 62.8% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, 74.7% have received at least one dose, and 37.5% of the fully vaccinated have been boosted.
Brown is also expecting that more doses of the vaccine will become necessary, much like yearly flu shots.
“We already know that the vaccines that people got over the summer were slightly less responsive to Delta,” he said, “and now with Omicron are slightly less responsive than that. So I expect as more variants come online — which there will be more — there may have to be some modifications made to the vaccine, or there may need to be more boosting that occurs.”
Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.