Strain on hospitals, risk to patients still serious, even if omicron proves milder overall
When Cedrick Holliman first joined Baylor’s on-site COVID-19 testing lab in August, he would see two, maybe three, positive tests per day.
Through October and November, it was typical for the Baylor facility primarily serving the university’s testing needs to see just a couple samples come back positive for every 400 or so checked, the MyLabsDirect lab manager said. Even when higher demand sent the lab samples from Waco, Plano and Farmer’s Branch on behalf of its MyLabsDirect sister lab in Dallas, positive cases remained scarce.
“No matter how busy it was here, I’d get a run and maybe one or two was positive out of every 376 I ran,” Holliman said.
Now, single-digit counts of positive results have turned to several dozen per run, and students are not even back on campus for the spring semester yet.
The lab in the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative building was established early last year as a resource for Baylor students, especially its athletes, whose tests are always treated as a priority by the staff, Holliman said.
After weeks of only a few cases at a time, Baylor University reported a record-high 119 new cases Wednesday, though as of Saturday, though its 7-day average for new cases stood at almost 33 as of Saturday. Every student living on campus in the spring will have to be tested within 24 hours of moving in, and unvaccinated students will need to be tested twice a week.
The lab also gets samples from Waco, Plano and Farmer’s Branch, depending on demand. The MyLabsDirect sister lab in Dallas can only handle manual testing, but the automatic system set up in the BRIC can process up to 3,700 tests a day.
As the omicron variant has spread, demand for testing has only increased, Holliman said.
“Everybody’s looking for testing,” Holliman said.
The Waco-McLennan County Public Health District plans to bring back free testing sites like the ones it operated for two previous stretches, but no start-date has been announced.
As of Dec. 30, the health district reported 1,804 active COVID-19 cases in McLennan County residents, and 57 patients with COVID-19 in local hospitals. Seven days later, on Thursday, the county had a record 2,506 active cases and 96 patients with COVID-19 in local hospitals, and 11 more residents had died of COVID-19.
Ascension Providence spokesperson Kathy Hadlock said the spike is “is putting extraordinary pressure on our hospitals, emergency departments and health care professionals.”
Since the omicron variant emerged, anecdotal evidence from doctors and new research has suggested omicron is less likely to cause severe illness, that and booster vaccinations fight off infections.
Even a variant that looks mild compared to the delta variant can wreak havoc, especially with such large case numbers, said Dr. Farley Verner, who serves as the public health authority for the health district.
Still early in the omicron wave, with far more new cases per day, the 96 hospitalizations as of Thursday remains about half the peak the county saw during the delta wave. That does not mean infection caused by omicron is not dangerous.
“You can look at it in different ways,” Verner said. “It seems like fewer people have severe disease, so it’s being called ‘milder,’ but we have to be careful how we interpret that. That’s not to say omicron is just going to cause mild illness.”
The new variant is also resistant to two of the antibody treatments doctors sometimes use to treat moderate COVID-19 cases. Another treatment, Sotrovimab, is effective against omicron but in short supply nationwide. Doctors are also struggling to find oral antiviral treatments.
Hospitalizations in McLennan County rose from 57 on Dec. 30 to 96 on Jan. 6. Peak hospitalizations reached about twice that number at the height of the delta surge in September. During this wave, Verner said hospitalizations have been slower to rise.
He said the county’s 52% vaccination rate, combined with natural immunity gained from catching the virus, might be helping hospitalizations stay low as well.
“I think what it comes down to is that we’ll be able to show, in time, the percentage of people with omicron who have severe disease and are hospitalized is going to be less than with delta,” Verner said.
During a press briefing held Friday, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said hospitalizations rates have been increasing across all age groups, but pediatric hospitalizations have hit their highest point since the pandemic began.
“Sadly, we are seeing the rates of hospitalizations increasing for children 0 to 4, children who are not yet currently eligible for COVID-19 vaccination,” Walensky said.
She said the CDC is still learning about the effects of omicron infection on children, and whether the spike in hospitalized kids is a result of the overall lower vaccination rate among children or because omicron is harder on young patients.
Currently, about half the children in the United States between the ages of 12 and 17 have been vaccinated, but that number drops to 16% for kids ages 5 to 11.
“A review of over 26 million vaccine doses in this age group was publicly reviewed at our advisory committee this week and demonstrated the overwhelming safety of COVID-19 vaccination,” Walensky said. “Please, for our youngest children, those who are not yet eligible for vaccination, it’s critically important that we surround them with people who are vaccinated to provide them protection.”
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