As another year of the COVID-19 pandemic draws to a close, low vaccination rates mean the region’s health care facilities are in for another hard winter, according to Dr. Rutul Dalal, infectious disease expert with UPMC Susquehanna.
This coupled with staffing shortages within the healthcare system, Dalal said UPMC is overwhelmed.
Geisinger Medical Center also recently stated that its facilities are overflowing as the COVID cases rise.
In 2021, over 295 COVID deaths were reported to Lycoming County Coroner Charles Kiessling.
“The youngest was 30 y/o and the oldest 102 years old,” Kiessling said. “It is difficult to determine who has been vaccinated or not because there is no place to look this up.”
According to Dalal, over 92% of individuals admitted to hospitals in the Susquehanna region with COVID are not vaccinated.
Since the initial surge of vaccinations during the spring and early summer, Dalal said he has seen new vaccinations come to an almost standstill, adding that those who were on the fence have decided to get the vaccine and others who are against the vaccine are not motivated to change their minds.
“We are seeing younger patients this year than last,” Kiessling said. “It appears that the sicker and those that die are mostly the unvaccinated however we have seen a significant number who have died that were vaccinated especially in the older age individuals with pre-existing comorbidities.”
On the PULSE sat down for an interview with Dalal to discuss the current COVID surge as well as new variants. See the full Q&A here:
Q. What does the COVID pandemic look like in Northcentral Pa.?
A. We are in the midst of a surge. This is the second surge after December 2020. We are still at 75% of what we were last year. At the height of the pandemic, in our region … we were averaging around 110 to 115 patients. Right now we have 78 patients, of which 18 of them are in the ICU, and almost 80% of them are on the ventilator.
Numbers are going up as we march into the colder season and unfortunately, because of the low vaccination rates, we are bracing ourselves for another tough winter.
Q. How many who are admitted to the hospital are vaccinated?
A. Overall across the UPMC system 75% of individuals who are admitted are unvaccinated individuals. If we’re talking about the local Susquehanna region we are seeing around 92 to 95% of people who are unvaccinated are admitted to the hospital. (Most who are vaccinated) are above age 65 and most of them have comorbidities and a chunk of them do not even know they have COVID they’re just there for some other reason and they’re swabbed and the code test comes back positive. So in short, vaccination does help.
The biggest chunk we are seeing is between the age groups of 30 and 50 – who are unvaccinated. We are at almost 120% to 125% of capacity and especially with also having staffing shortages due to people being quarantined, people being sick, or people just changing professions because they were fighting this for the last 22 months.
Over the last 22 months, people also neglected their own health because they were scared to come to health care facilities. Some people were depressed and were getting negative thoughts because of the worldwide surge. So all of that is coming back.
Compared to last year the difference right now as we are seeing COVID as well as non COVID patients coming into our facilities, which wasn’t the case last year.
Q. Have new variants, like Omicron, spurred people to get vaccinated?
A. Initially when the Omicron variant was announced, as it was labeled as a variant of interest by who availed of console. (For vaccinations) I should say there was a big spike, especially in getting the boosters but we haven’t seen a substantial jump in people getting the primary vaccination series and even though we have seen people coming in for vaccinations, we are almost hit a wall right now.
Q. Should the public be concerned by the Omicron variant?
A. Variants will keep coming as long as we have the virus in our ecosystem … Whenever a virus comes in, it tries to make baby copies of itself using the human cell machinery and that’s when mistakes happen. And during that we see some potential variants coming in.
Early studies, which were showing that Omicron variants had characteristics of both beta and delta. Beta variant was found in Great Britain, which had more issues with regards to immune evasion. And then the delta variant has all the features of increased transmissibility. So there was a concern that probably vaccines won’t work as well against the Omicron variant.
But now, further studies are showing that the transmission might be a little bit higher, but the immune evasion mechanisms are not going to be that bad. For people who have gotten the Pfizer vaccine, there was a statement out that if you take the booster, your antibodies go up by 25 times. So boosters are, of course, the way to deal with this. So far, we don’t think that Omicron might become the predominant variant that is still going to be Delta. But again, this is probably not the last variant we are seeing.
If a virus needs to propagate and stay in the system for long periods of time, it has to let go of its lethality so that it can conserve and stay in sync with the human system. Not meaning that it won’t kill people, but maybe the killing process will go down, and maybe in the next 12 to 14 months, we can probably get to that stage provided our vaccination rates also go up. And then probably we might need boosters, like in the colder months just like the flu virus. So the next couple of years, or at least the next 14 to 15 months, the prediction is that the severity will go down. It will become endemic just like the regular common cold or the flu.
Q. How should the public react to new variants?
A. I think we should be fearful at least for the next upcoming year or so but not lose sleep too much over it. You can do whatever you have in your hands and that is getting the vaccines, getting the boosters and doing the right social mitigation strategy.
COVID is here to stay. But the lethality will go down and we can make it endemic from the pandemic stage. And for that, collectively, we all need to work on it, but I wouldn’t really lose my sleep. If you do the right things it will go a long way in controlling this particular virus and subsequent variants.
Q. What are some health tips for the future winter season with COVID-19?
A. I know it’s an unrealistic target but if we can get more than 75 to 80% of the population vaccinated, then it will go a long way in controlling this particular pandemic and then make it turn into endemic. We need to flatten the curve.
Second of all, even though you’re vaccinated if you are in the midst of a crowd where the people are not the immediate family members and if you’re in an indoor environment, you definitely need to wear a mask. And of course, social distancing, hand washing are important as well. But masking has proven to be the most important among the three.
We still have people who don’t get the flu vaccine but again, as compared to the Coronavirus, which is the new one, we see more deaths. And we see overall the percentage of people suffering more and the transmissibility. Also, it’s much quicker compared to flow.
But again, we have vaccine hesitancy in other situations as well. But this is different because this is of global proportions. That’s the reason why the push is more for getting this vaccine.
We do not want a twindemic situation in which we have two different viruses coming in at the same time and overwhelming hospitals. Basically that’s the most important thing because we are seeing a huge influx of COVID as well as non COVID patients. And that puts an enormous strain on us on the healthcare staff and then eventually that strain can get into the community. It’s a collective responsibility to keep this under control.”