NORFOLK, Va. ( Associated Press) – COVID-19 hospitalization numbers have dropped to their lowest levels since the early days of the pandemic, providing a much-needed break to healthcare workers as well as patients after the omicron boom.
The number of patients admitted to hospital with the coronavirus has dropped by more than 90 percent in more than two months, and some hospitals are going without a single COVID-19 patient in the ICU for the first time since early 2020 days .
The cleared beds are expected to help U.S. hospitals retain exhausted staff, treat non-COVID-19 patients faster, and reduce costs at a high cost. More family members can visit loved ones. And doctors hope to see a correction of the slippage in pediatric visits, annual checkups and cancer screenings.
“We should all smile that the number of people currently in hospital with COVID, and people in intensive care units with COVID, is at this low point,” says Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida.
But, he said, the nation “Paid an expensive price to get to this stage. “Many people became ill and many people died.”
Hospitalizations are now at their lowest point since the summer of 2020, when comprehensive national data first became available. The average number of people admitted to hospital with COVID-19 in the past week has dropped nationwide to 11,860, the lowest since 2020 and a sharp decline from the peak of more than 145,000 set in mid-January. The previous low was last June 12 041, before the delta variant took hold.
The optimistic trend is also evident in ICU patient numbers, which have dropped to less than 2,000.
“We’re starting to be able to breathe,” the dr. Jeffrey Weinstein, the patient safety officer for the Kettering Health Hospital system in western Ohio, said.
COVID-19 patients filled 30 percent of Kettering Health’s nearly 1,600 hospital beds in January, Weinstein said. Kettering’s eight hospitals now average two to three COVID-19 admissions a day – and sometimes zero.
And while Salemi agreed it’s a good time for an exhausted healthcare system to breathe, he warned the public health community to keep an eye on the BA.2 sub-variant of omicron. It is causing increases in hospitalizations in Britain, and it is now estimated that it accounts for more than half of American infections.
“We are likely to detect true infections now more than at any other time during the pandemic,” Salemi said.
At least many hospitals are paying attention to the low numbers.
In California, UC Davis Health tweeted on Thursday that its intensive care unit had no COVID-19 patients for the first time in two years for two consecutive days.
“The first COVID-19 patient to arrive at our ICU did so in February 2020, and the unit has treated at least one positive individual every day for at least 761 consecutive days since then.” said the hospital system.
Toby Marsh, the Chief Nursing and Patient Care Officer, said in a statement that they hope the numbers “is an indication of a sustained change.”
In Philadelphia, patients spend less time in the Temple University Health System because there are no more backlogs for MRIs, CT scans and lab tests, said Dr. Tony Reed, the chief medical officer, said.
Temple Health’s three hospitals had six adult COVID-19 patients on Thursday, probably the lowest patient count since March 2020, Reed said.
During the omicron resurgence, patients waited as long as 22 hours for a routine MRI, which is usually done within 12 hours. Longer waits affected those who came in with difficulty walking – and with a lot of pain – for example due to a herniated disc that pinched their nerve.
“Nobody wants to stay in the hospital a day longer than they should,” Reed said.
Bed emptying also helps patients in rural areas, says Jay Anderson, chief operating officer of Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. During the boom, the hospital faced challenges in accepting people from community hospitals who needed increased care for brain tumors, advanced cancer and stroke. That burden is now being lifted.
Visitors will also return in larger numbers from Tuesday. Ohio State will no longer limit patients to two designated guests, who could only visit separately.
“Patients heal better if 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 constant low COVID-19 hospital admissions caused smiles among staff, even as she checked the figures to make sure they were really correct.
“I had one of those moments like, oh it’s amazing,” says Barron, medical director of infection prevention and control at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital. “It feels unreal.”
UCHealth has lifted some restrictions, including waiving the test requirements for anyone entering a facility. And while it has caused some anxiety among staff members, Barron says the numbers have not risen.
“I think some people started taking vacations and not feeling guilty,” she said. “I had a spring break with my kids and it was a level of happiness where I went, oh my god, it’s actually normal.”
The omicron boom has stretched staff at work – but also at home, said dr. Mike Hooper, chief medical officer of Sentara Norfolk General Hospital in southeast Virginia, said.
“It was stressful to be at the store… to visit your family,” Hooper said. “We all hope that some ‘return to normalcy’ will help people deal with the inherent stress of being part of the healthcare team.”
But just because hospitals are down does not mean hospitals are empty, says dr. Frank Johnson, chief medical officer for St. Luke’s Health System in Idaho.
Some measures – such as wearing masks in certain environments – will remain in place.
“I do not know when we can go back to old mask wear practices in our clinical areas,” Johnson said. “We have seen some benefits from it in terms of reducing the number of other viral infections.”
Meanwhile, the public health community is monitoring the BA.2 subvariant of omicron.
Salemi, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida, said the increase in home tests means more results are not included in the official counts of coronavirus cases. Therefore, wastewater monitoring will be the early warning signal to keep an eye on, he said.
“BA.2 is here,” he said. “We do not have to look so far in the rearview mirror to know that things can change very quickly. We saw what happened to delta. We saw what happened to omicron…. We do not want to wait until we see a lot of people in the hospital before we perform. ”