Covid-19 hospitalizations in the United States have been growing for more than a month, and at the current pace – more than 2,500 patients added each day over the past week, according to data from the US Department of Health and Human Services – the US will surpass January’s record high in about a month.
Florida and Louisiana are now reporting a record number of Covid-19 hospital admissions, and other states are close. In Mississippi and Arkansas, daily admissions are at more than 87% of their earlier peak, and in Oregon, Alabama and Washington, daily admissions are at more than 75% of their peak.
But patients hospitalized with Covid-19 this summer tend to be younger than in earlier surges. And with vaccines widely available, they’re mostly preventable, too.
Mercy Hospital in Joplin, Missouri, has surpassed its record number of Covid-19 patients more than once in the past two weeks, according to hospital president Jeremy Drinkwitz.
Things are very different from last time, he says.
“As far as the very distinct differences – the age of patients for us,” Drinkwitz told CNN. The hospital recently had three patients between 30 and 40, multiple patients in their 40s and some in their 50s and 60s on ventilators, he said.
“In November, when we had our first big spike, we didn’t,” Drinkwitz said. “We didn’t have that younger population; it was more of the elderly population.”
Now, he said, there are fewer elderly patients. “We’re just not seeing that many. We have a few, but it’s not anywhere close to the younger population,” Drinkwitz said.
Seniors still have the highest per capita rate of hospitalizations, but the gap is smaller than it’s been.
The recent hospitalization rate among seniors age 70 and older is about a quarter of what it was in January, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But hospitalization rates among younger adults are about as high as they were in January.
In fact, the hospitalization rate among adults age 30 to 39 is the highest it’s ever been, CDC data shows.
Children also account for a larger share of hospitalizations now than they did in January, as hospitalization rates among those under the age of 18 hover right around the record high.
In a few states – including Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Louisiana – the number of children hospitalized with Covid-19 more than doubled over the past week, federal data shows.
But with every 12 and older eligible to be vaccinated against Covid-19, experts have different concerns about this new wave of hospitalizations.
Early in the pandemic, there weren’t enough tools to care for patients and doctors didn’t know if what they were doing for their patients was the right thing, Dr. O’Neil Pyke, chief medical officer of Jackson North Medical Center, Jackson Health System in Florida, told CNN. As a critical care and internal medicine doctor, he cared for patients himself during the early stages of the pandemic, from March to October of last year.
“Now, my biggest concern is that we have a very, very good tool, right, we have the vaccine, and the vaccine has been proven now to be remarkably efficacious as it pertains to preventing severe illness and death,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily prevent getting the virus, but it certainly does prevent severe illness requiring hospitalization and death. And the concern is that the community still has that hesitancy.”
While Pyke said he understands this hesitancy to a degree, the best way to look at it is as though the vaccine is a dam.
“We have this deluge of flooding going on, and what we’re doing in terms of trying with the medicines that we’re trying over the months is basically scooping out cups of water from this flood,” he said. “But the vaccine is like a dam, and the vaccine can do so much more in preventing the flooding that we’re seeing right now. And that’s the very essence of it.”
Florida has the highest hospitalization rate in the country, according to the latest data from HHS. More than 65 people are hospitalized with Covid-19 for every 100,000 people in Florida, about one out of every 1,500 state residents. That’s more than triple the national rate.
Every state with a higher than average hospitalization rate has a lower than average vaccination rate, including Florida, according to a CNN analysis of data from the CDC and HHS.
And it’s taking a toll on a health care system that has been operating at full strength for a year and a half, Pyke says.
“We thought we turned the corner a bit on this, and here we are going back up,” he said. “Obviously whatever we are feeling pales in comparison to what patients are feeling and their families, but it’s overwhelming to the staff to be caring for patients with the same disease we thought we just, we might be seeing the end of.”
In Arkansas, the Covid-19 hospitalization rate is more than double the national rate and the fifth highest in the country. Hospitalization rates among children are higher than they’ve ever been in the state. But so, too, are hospitalization rates among young adults under 30, who have been eligible to be vaccinated for months.
Dr. Stephen Mette, CEO of UAMS Health in Arkansas, said that low vaccination rate is the “first and foremost” contributing factor to the latest increase in hospitalizations.
Like Mercy Hospital in Joplin, UAMS has recently surpassed its record high number of hospitalizations in the pandemic. The majority of patients hospitalized with Covid at UAMS are either not vaccinated at all or not fully vaccinated, Mette said. And vaccinated patients have, so far, had a significant underlying medical condition.
“We knew we would have another wave, but we were maybe lulled into that false sense of security that we would have a large enough number of Americans, or Arkansans, vaccinated so that we would not have a very high wave,” Mette said. “So, we were prepared, but not for this degree of the manifestation of this wave.”
Other major contributing factors, Mette said, include different characteristics of the Delta variant, the relaxation of public health measures and the public’s general pandemic fatigue.
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Vaccination rates in the US have ticked up over recent weeks, a trend that experts say needs to continue to curb the current surge of Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations.
“We love our community, we love our neighbors and our friends here and our community, and we’re here to serve them, and because of that we’re fighting like hell to save their lives. Thirty year olds and 40 year olds should have a chance to live a full life and so we’re trying to do everything we can to help them after they have gotten this virus,” Drinkwitz said.
But the medical professionals need the help of the community.
“I’m asking people actually to open their eyes and realize what’s happening. That there are hospitals and healthcare is being challenged, there’s capacity issues in communities, and that we have to do something,” Drinkwitz said. “We need help on the other side. We need people to be vaccinated. And if they just can’t get their minds wrapped around that, then please wear a mask, social distance, those things we know to do.”
Correction: A previous version of this story spelled Dr. O’Neil Pyke’s name incorrectly.