Jan. 5, 2022 -- Hospitals across the U.S. are beginning to fill up with COVID-19 patients again, but a smaller proportion of cases are severe enough to move to intensive care or require mechanical ventilation.

So far, the hospitalizations due to the Omicron variant appear to be milder than in previous waves.

“We are seeing an increase in the number of hospitalizations,” Rahul Sharma, MD, emergency physician-in-chief for NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, told The New York Times.

“We’re not sending as many patients to the ICU, we’re not intubating as many patients, and actually, most of our patients that are coming to the emergency department that do test positive are actually being discharged,” he said.

Most Omicron patients in ICUs are unvaccinated or have severely compromised immune systems, doctors told the newspaper.

Currently, about 113,000 COVID-19 patients are hospitalized across the country, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. About 76% of inpatient beds are in use nationwide, with about 16% of inpatient beds in use for COVID-19.

Early data suggests that the Omicron variant may cause less severe disease. But it’s easier to catch the variant, so more people are getting the virus, including people who have some immunity through prior infection or vaccination, which is driving up hospitalization numbers.

In New York City, for instance, COVID-19 hospitalizations have surpassed the peak of last winter’s surge, the newspaper reported. In addition, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency on Tuesday, noting that the state had more hospitalized COVID-19 patients than at any other time during the pandemic.

“We’re in truly crushed mode,” Gabe Kelen, MD, chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine for the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, told the Times.

Earlier in the pandemic, hospitals faced challenges with stockpiling ventilators and personal protective equipment, doctors told the newspaper. Now they’re dealing with limits on hospital beds and staffing as health care workers test positive. The increase in COVID-19 cases has also come along with a rise in hospitalizations for other conditions such as heart attacks and strokes.

In response, some hospitals are considering cutting elective surgeries due to staff shortages and limited bed capacity, the newspaper reported. In the meantime, hospital staff and administrators are watching case numbers to see how high hospitalizations may soar due to the Omicron variant.

“How high will it go? Can’t tell you. Don’t know,” James Musser, MD, chair of pathology and genomic medicine at Houston Methodist in Texas, told the Times.

“We’re all watching it, obviously, very, very closely,” he said.

Show Sources

The New York Times: “In Omicron Hot Spots, Hospitals Fill Up, but ICUs May Not.”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: “Inpatient Bed Utilization by State.”

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