The number of hospitalizations due to COVID-19 has fallen to its lowest level since the early days of the pandemic, giving a much-needed break to both healthcare workers and patients in the wake of the omicron surge.
The number of patients hospitalized with coronavirus has dropped by more than 90% in more than two months, and some hospitals are seeing no patients with COVID-19 in the intensive care unit for the first time since the beginning of 2020.
The freed up beds are expected to help U.S. hospitals retain exhausted staff, treat COVID-19-free patients faster, and cut inflated costs. More family members can visit loved ones. And doctors are hoping to see things turn around at pediatric visits, annual checkups and cancer screenings.
“We should all be smiling that the number of people currently in hospital with COVID and people in intensive care units with COVID is at this low point,” said University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi.
But, he said, the nation “paid a high price to get to this stage. … A lot of people got sick and a lot of people died.”
Hospital admissions are now at their lowest level since the summer of 2020, when comprehensive national data first became available. The average number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the last week across the country has fallen to 11,860, the lowest level since 2020 and a sharp drop from a peak of more than 145,000 set in mid-January. The previous low was 12,041 last June before the delta option took hold.
An optimistic trend is also evident in the number of ICU patients, which has dropped to less than 2,000, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
“We’re starting to catch our breath,” said Dr. Jeffrey Weinstein, a patient safety specialist at the Kettering Health Hospital System in Western Ohio.
In January, COVID-19 patients filled 30% of Kettering Health’s nearly 1,600 hospital beds, Weinstein said. Kettering’s eight hospitals are now averaging two to three COVID-19 admissions per day, sometimes zero.
And while Salemi agreed that this is a good time for the depleted health care system to catch its breath, he warned that the public health community needs to keep an eye on the omicron BA.2 sub-option. This is leading to an increase in hospitalizations in the UK and is now estimated to account for more than half of US infections.
“Now we are probably underestimating true infections more than ever during a pandemic,” Salemi said.
At least for now, many hospitals are reporting low numbers.
On Thursday in California, UC Davis Health tweeted that its ICU had no COVID-19 patients for two consecutive days for the first time in two years.
“The first COVID-19 patient admitted to our intensive care unit was admitted in February 2020, and since then the unit has treated at least one positive person every day for at least 761 consecutive days,” the hospital said in a statement. systems.
Toby Marsh, Chief Nursing and Patient Care Specialist, said in a statement that they hope the numbers “indicate sustainable change.”
In Philadelphia, patients are spending less time in the Temple University healthcare system because there are no longer queues for MRIs, CT scans and lab tests, said Dr. Tony Reid, chief medical officer.
There were six adult COVID-19 patients at three Temple Health hospitals on Thursday, likely the lowest number since March 2020, Reed said.
During the micron surge, patients waited up to 10 p.m. for a routine MRI scan, which is usually done within 12 hours. Longer waits have affected those who came with difficulty walking – and with severe pain – for example, due to a herniated disc that pinches the sciatic nerve.
“No one wants to stay in the hospital a day longer than necessary,” Reed said.
Freeing up beds also helps patients in rural areas, said Jay Anderson, chief operating officer of the Ohio Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. During the surges, the hospital had difficulty admitting people from community hospitals who needed increased care for brain tumors, advanced cancer, and stroke. Now this burden is lifted.
Visitors will also return in greater numbers starting Tuesday. The State of Ohio will no longer limit patients to two designated guests who can only enter individually.
“Patients recover better when they have access to their family and loved ones,” Anderson said.
Doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists are also getting a much-needed break in some areas.
In Colorado, Dr. Michelle Barron said the persistently low COVID-19 hospitalization rate brought smiles to staff, even as she double-checked the numbers to make sure they were indeed correct.
“I had one of those ‘Oh, that’s amazing’ moments,” said Barron, medical director of infection prevention and control at the University of Colorado Hospital. “It seems unrealistic.”
UChalth has eased some restrictions, including removing testing requirements for everyone who enters the facility. While this has caused some concern among employees, Barron says the numbers have not gone up.
“I think some people have started to take vacations and not feel guilty,” she said. “I had spring break with my kids and that was the happiness level where I went, oh my god, that’s actually okay.”
According to Dr. Mike Hooper, chief medical officer at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital in southeast Virginia, the surge in omicrons has kept staff at work, but also at home.
“It was tough being in the store…visiting my family,” Hooper said. “We all hope that some ‘back to normal’ will help people cope with the stress of working on a healthcare team.”
But just because hospitalizations are down doesn’t mean hospitals are empty, said Dr. Frank Johnson, chief medical officer of St. Luke’s Health System in Idaho.
Some measures, such as the wearing of masks under certain conditions, will remain in place.
“I don’t know when we will be able to return to the old practice of wearing masks in our clinical areas,” Johnson said. “We have seen some benefits of this in terms of reducing other viral infections.”
In the meantime, public health is monitoring the omicron BA.2 sub-option.
Salemi, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida, said the increase in home testing means more results are not included in official coronavirus case counts. So watching the sewage will be an early warning signal to watch out for, he said.
“BA.2 is here,” he said. “We don’t have to look so far in the rearview mirror to realize that things can change very quickly. We saw what happened to the delta. We saw what happened with the omicron… We don’t want to wait until we see a lot of people being hospitalized before we act.”