US Covid-19 hospitalizations expected to substantially increase from an already record-high over the coming weeks, expert says

Originally Published: 17 JAN 22 05:34 ET
Updated: 17 JAN 22 06:03 ET

    (CNN) -- As hospitals across the US handle record-high Covid-19 hospitalizations nearly two years into the pandemic, staffing shortages are expanding as health care employees face prolonged risks for exposure.

With available intensive care beds dwindling across several states, experts are encouraging Americans to remain vigilant and try to avoid Covid-19 as tough weeks lie ahead.

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, warns that because increases in hospitalizations tend to lag spikes in overall cases, "the next three, four weeks are going to be hard" for the nation, which already has more than 156,000 people currently hospitalized with Covid-19, according to data Sunday from the US Department of Health and Human Services.

"I expect those numbers to get substantially higher. The problem is we are running out of health care workforce, we don't have the staffing. So that is going to be a challenge for many weeks ahead," Jha told Fox Sunday.

While early data from New York, one of the earliest hotspots in this latest surge, shows promising developments -- its test positivity rate is 13%, down from a peak of 23% a couple weeks ago, according to Gov. Kathy Hochul -- the wave of ongoing Omicron infections is expected to peak at different times across the country.

Cases are plateauing and even declining in some regions, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy said Sunday, but he cautions that's not the case everywhere.

"The challenge is that the entire country is not moving at the same pace. The Omicron wave started later in other parts of the country, so we shouldn't expect a national peak in the next coming days," Murthy told Jake Tapper on CNN's "State of the Union."

The average daily number of new recorded Covid-19 cases surpassed 750,000 for the seventh consecutive day Sunday, according to Johns Hopkins University data, meaning Americans at work, school and elsewhere face a heightened risk of exposure that is unparalleled during the pandemic. Additionally, the US averaged 1,796 Covid-19 deaths a day over the past week, according to JHU data.

Former FDA commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb said Sunday the benefits for those at higher risk for severe illness of avoiding this surge means they will have a better ability to fight the virus as the year moves forward.

"I would much rather have my reckoning with Covid after I've been vaccinated a number of times, after there's orally available drugs widely accessible to treat this infection, after there's monoclonal antibodies widely accessible to treat it, after diagnostic testing is stockpiled," Gottlieb told CBS' "Face the Nation."

"And those realities will be truth come this fall, certainly come this summer. So I think people will be in a much better position to grapple with this next fall. I think we should remain vigilant for the next several weeks, try to avoid this infection if you can," he said.

As the virus spreads, school districts are struggling to keep classrooms open, and some are instituting more safety measures to avoid a return to remote learning.

Chicago Public Schools, which canceled classes for days in a recent dispute with the teachers' union that voted in favor of virtual learning, resumed in-person teaching last week after pledging to increase Covid-19 testing as well as provide higher-quality KN95 masks.

Experts have stressed more tools are available at this stage of the pandemic than before to help keep schools open. Masks are one of the key ways to help mitigate Covid-19 spread, and in Virginia, at least two school districts will continue to require mask usage despite an executive order from the state's newly elected governor that allows parents to make decisions about whether their child wears a mask in school.

Beware of Covid-19 test scams, state officials warn

The Biden administration is taking additional measures to expand access to Covid-19 testing, Murthy told CNN Sunday, which has been hindered in recent months due to supply not meeting an increase in demand.

A billion Covid-19 tests will become available for people to order through a federal website starting January 19, Murthy said, and 50 million tests have been sent to community health centers around the country. Those with private insurance can now get up to eight tests per person per month, he added.

Yet the current lack of testing availability in some areas has provided an opportunity for scammers to take advantage of those in need. Attorneys general in Oregon, New Mexico and Illinois last week warned consumers of "pop-up" Covid-19 testing sites that may provide false results or skim personal information.

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum said Wednesday that huge demand for Covid-19 testing "brings bad actors and some businesses trying to make a quick buck out from the shadows."

Residents should be "cautious about pop-up testing sites that charge out-of-pocket fees, do not display logos, do not disclose the laboratory performing the test, are not affiliated with a known organization, or that ask for sensitive information, like social security numbers, that is not necessary for insurance," Rosenblum said.

Study questions ending isolation after 5 days without negative test

Testing availability is critical to help slow the spread of Covid-19, not only to better determine if someone has contracted the virus but also for those who did to later find out if they are negative and not infectious.

Current guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says people infected with Covid-19 can end isolation after five days if they don't have symptoms, and that they should wear a mask around others for at least five more days.

The best approach for an individual with access to a test is to use it toward the end of their five-day isolation period, but taking the test is not mandatory, according to the CDC guidance.

But a new study on the infectiousness of the Omicron variant finds many individuals were still assumed to be infectious five days after their infections were initially detected, suggesting a more cautious approach may be warranted.

Researchers looked at 10,324 Covid-19 test results from 537 NBA players and others affiliated with the league, finding 97 confirmed and suspected Omicron cases.

Among 27 individuals who tested positive one or fewer days after a previous negative test, 52% were still assumed infectious five days after their infection was detected, the study found. And among 70 individuals who tested positive two or more days after a previous negative test, 39% were still assumed infectious five days after their infection was detected.

Regarding the study's findings, one of the researchers -- Nathan Grubaugh with the Yale School of Public Health -- said, "Ending isolation at day 5 should include a negative rapid antigen test. Otherwise isolation needs to be extended."

Earlier this month, Gottlieb said while a certain percentage of people may leave isolation after five days and still be infectious, they are not "driving the pandemic."

"I think what underlies the CDC recommendation, there is a recognition that this is an epidemic that's not being instigated -- spread, if you will -- by people who get diagnosed, isolate for five days and go back into public circulation on day six," Gottlieb said.

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