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Half of COVID-19 patients in NYC hospitals were admitted for something else — a sign of milder Omicron cases in vaccinated people

New York City had more than 5,000 COVID-19 hospital admissions as of January 3, official data show.

Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty

  • New York reported more than 11,500 COVID-19 hospitalizations on Friday — close to a record high.
  • More than 40% of those patients, and half of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in New York City, were admitted for an unrelated issue.
  • Doctors still caution that COVID-19 can worsen outcomes for all hospitalized patients. 

New York is approaching a record high number of COVID-19 hospitalizations nearly two years into the pandemic.

The state’s COVID-19 hospitalizations rose 36% in a single week, from fewer than 8,500 hospitalized patients on New Year’s Eve to more than 11,500 hospitalized patients on Friday, according to state data. (In comparison, New York recorded upward of 14,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations at once in April 2020.)

In New York City alone, more than 6,000 hospitalized patients had COVID-19 as of Friday — a 40% increase from the week prior.

But disease experts caution that these latest figures include people who were admitted to the hospital for ailments unrelated to COVID-19, then later diagnosed with the disease. Thus far, the Omicron variant appears to cause relatively mild disease among most vaccinated people. 

The chart below shows the breakdown of people hospitalized for COVID-19 as of Friday, versus patients who tested positive in the hospital, but were admitted for a different reason. Roughly half of COVID-19 patients in New York City hospitals, and 43% of hospitalized COVID-19 patients across the state, were admitted for an issue unrelated to the virus.

COVID-related admissions made up a much larger share of COVID-19 hospitalizations in central (80%) and western (73%) New York. These regions have lower vaccination rates than New York City and the state overall. Just 66% of people in central New York and 65% of people in western New York have had two vaccine doses, compared with 73% in New York City and 70% across the state. 

COVID-19 can worsen outcomes for hospitalized patients with other illnesses

As Omicron cases continue to surge, vaccines have been instrumental at keeping hospitalizations at bay. A recent report from the UK Health Security Agency found that two vaccine doses lower the risk of an Omicron hospitalization by 65%, while three doses lower the risk by 81%.  

man takes covid home test kit from city workerCity workers hand out take-home COVID-19 test kits in lower Manhattan on December 23, 2021.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Omicron may also cause milder disease on its own, though scientists are still trying to determine if that’s the case. Two recent lab studies, which haven’t been peer reviewed, suggest that Omicron may be less effective at attacking lung cells compared with other variants.

But an Omicron infection could exacerbate preexisting health conditions like cancer, diabetes, or kidney disease — especially for people hospitalized with these illnesses. People with diabetes who contract a viral infection, for instance, face an increased risk of diabetic ketoacidosis, a serious complication that can lead to coma or death.

Rising COVID-19 cases strain hospital capacity and threaten standards of care

An influx of COVID-19 patients may also hamper doctors’ ability to provide adequate care, regardless of why patients were admitted to the hospital.

Many US hospitals are short-staffed due to a combination of burnout and hospital employees getting sick themselves. Nearly one-quarter of US hospitals now report a critical staffing shortage, according to data from the US Department of Health and Human Services.

“Admissions with COVID is still very disruptive to the healthcare system at a time when it can’t afford more disruption,” Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, wrote last week on Twitter. 

COVID-19 patients have to be isolated, and doctors must don additional protective gear like gloves and face shields while treating them, Jha said. Those extra precautions “[slow] everyone down from seeing other patients,” he added, and make surgery “much more complicated.”

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