Hospitals are filling up, and health care workers are wondering what more they can do to emphasize the continued severity of COVID-19.
Cries of “it’s just a cold” litter the internet and social media. Data from places such as South Africa and the United Kingdom that had an earlier surge of the omicron variant show that omicron cases are milder, but that doesn’t mean there’s no risk, said Dr. David Dunkle, Johnson Memorial’s president and CEO.
“My warning to people is, yes the omicron variant overall results in (fewer) hospitalizations, but you are infecting more people,” Dunkle said. “That is why we are seeing so many hospitalizations.”
The positivity rate is higher than it has ever been. It is nearly 24% throughout the state, and 22.5% in Johnson County, due to the high transmissibility of the virus variants and fewer people taking precautions, such as masking up and socially distancing.
Medical professionals acknowledge that most COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic have been mild, but 18,794 Hoosiers and 498 Johnson County residents have died from COVID-19, according to the Indiana Department of Health. That’s out of 1.3 million Hoosiers and 32,719 Johnson County residents who have tested positive for the virus.
“I’m glad the majority of people don’t die from COVID. I’m glad the majority of people aren’t hospitalized. But there are people in the hospital on ventilators clinging to life,” Dunkle said.
Johnson Memorial Hospital and hospitals around the state are filled with people who have downplayed COVID-19 and hesitated or refused to get vaccinated. The unvaccinated, especially if they are obese or have other risk factors such as diabetes or heart disease, are at a much greater risk of hospitalization and death.
As cases across the state and county have soared to all-time highs in the past few days, hospitals have also swelled to new heights and come close to meeting or passing records.
Central Indiana hospitals are close to an all-time high COVID-19 patient census at 3,260 hospitalizations. Johnson Memorial has nearly reached its all-time high of 25 COVID-19 patients. It had 21 on Thursday. Of that 21, nine patients were in the critical care unit — there are 10 CCU beds — and six were on ventilators, Dunkle said.
Data hospitals reported to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services shows all hospitals in central Indiana were over or near capacity in their intensive care units Thursday.
Those patients and many like them who have died or been close to death due to COVID-19 are proof this is more than “just a cold,” Dunkle said.
“The majority of people hospitalized and the majority of people in ICUs are unvaccinated,” he said. “Hospitals have no reason to be dishonest about this.”
With so many fighting COVID-19, medicine to treat the virus has become more scarce. For example, the hospital had enough of Regeneron, a type of monoclonal antibody treatment, to give five patients, but 55 requests for the drug. The hospital also received doses of the new Pfizer anti-viral pill, Paxlovid, but not nearly enough to go around. The limited supply will be given to patients who meet specific criteria, Dunkle said.
People can’t depend on these new drugs to be on hand if they get sick, he said.
“You are starting to see the inability to get testing, lack of supply for monoclonal antibodies and the oral treatments,” Dunkle said. “What is not in short supply is the vaccine.”
While the variants make it easier for the virus to evade vaccines, vaccinations remain an important tool to keep people out of the hospital, he said.
Statewide, 3.7% of fully vaccinated people have experienced breakthrough COVID-19 cases, and fewer than 1% of fully vaccinated people have been hospitalized or died from COVID-19, state data shows.
Indiana has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country. Just four states rank lower, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Indiana, 54.9% of residents are fully vaccinated. In Johnson County, 60.7% are fully vaccinated.
As long as this many people remain unvaccinated, hospitals will be vulnerable to COVID-19 surges, Dunkle said.
Booster shots have also been identified as a tool to help fight omicron, and make it less likely to get a breakthrough infection. The Food and Drug Administration recently lowered the wait time between full vaccination for people who have received two doses of Moderna or Pfizer to five months. The previous recommendation was to wait six months.
The state on Thursday opened booster shots to Hoosiers aged 12 to 15, following CDC and FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine for this age group. Hoosiers in this age group may get the vaccine five months following their second dose of the vaccine at any vaccine site that offers the Pfizer vaccine.