DENVER – During the current omicron variant wave, Colorado hospitals are seeing more people with “incidental” COVID-19 cases who were originally admitted for reasons other than the virus than during previous waves involving other variants, state public health and hospital officials said Wednesday.
UCHealth is among the hospital systems that said about two-thirds of their roughly 350 patients with COVID-19 from last week were first admitted to the hospital for other reasons but tested positive for COVID during routine testing upon admission. The Colorado Sun reported that Denver Health was seeing similar trends.
The hospital system said during the delta variant wave during the second half of 2021, more than 90% of the patients positive with COVID-19 were hospitalized for treatment for the virus and surrounding complications from it.
UCHealth said the challenge with the incidental patients is that they could still be infectious, so they have to be put into certain units and the health care workers treating them have to wear specialized personal protective equipment.
Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state epidemiologist for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said Wednesday that the incidental COVID case hospitalization trend with omicron was being seen around the state.
She said before the omicron variant hit Colorado — omicron now accounts for virtually all the cases in the state, according to CDPHE data — hospitals were typically seeing between 80% and 90% of their COVID-positive patients coming in for treatment for the virus.
But she said that statewide and across the country, there has been a rapid decrease in that percentage to around 65%, with some areas that could have even lower rates.
It is something officials with the CDPHE are keeping a close eye on as they figure out how to discern sorting patients hospitalized due to COVID-19 versus patients hospitalized with COVID-19, Herlihy said, adding that the incidental patients “continue to put a significant strain on our health care systems” because the adjustments hospitals have to make to keep patients and staff safe from the virus.
“In many cases, COVID-19 is continuing to complicate their hospitalization, extend their hospitalization, and even for those that may have something else causing their hospitalization and mild COVID-19 infection, that is still complicating their hospitalization because those individuals need to be in isolation,” she said.
She said there could “quite likely” be variability in incidental cases by region across the state because of the way the state defines a primary COVID-19 diagnosis – the main reason a person was hospitalized – versus how various hospitals may define them. Herlihy added that the data from around the state lags in getting to the CDPHE and that numbers in the metro area versus statewide could differ because of those factors.
Both UCHealth and the CDPHE said omicron is less severe than other variants but is still causing massive issues when it comes to bed and staff availability. The most severely ill patients are unvaccinated, while those with two shots or with their booster shot on top are showing less severe illness.
More than 95% of the 75 patients in UCHealth intensive care units last week were not vaccinated, the hospital system said. Out of the 1,577 patients with confirmed COVID-19 who were hospitalized statewide as of Wednesday, 71% were unvaccinated.
“Breakthrough infections are occurring, but a lot of those breakthrough infections are not as severe because the vaccine is protecting those individuals,” said Dr. Michelle Barron, UCHealth’s senior medical director of infection prevention and control. “The purpose of the vaccines is to keep you from getting severe illness and dying from COVID-19, and they are very effective at this.”
Herlihy said the CDPHE was updating its analysis looking at risks of hospitalization among people at different stages of vaccination.
“Even if someone has a primary diagnosis of something other than COVID-19, COVID-19 is still complicating their hospitalization for a variety of reasons – either making them more ill and extending the length of their hospitalization or making it more challenging for health care providers to provide care to those individuals,” she said.