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As North Carolina hits record Covid numbers, NHRMC sees a less severe spike

Vince Winkel

North Carolina has hit an all-time high of hospitalized Covid patients, as of Wednesday close to 4,100 people have been admitted to hospitals. The previous high was under 4,000 last January during the Delta variant surge.

While elevated, New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s numbers are just half of what they were during last year’s Delta variant surge. According to Dr. West Paul, Chief Clinical Officer of Novant Health’s Coastal market, there are also fewer Covid patients going to intensive care. Paul said the hospital has seen very few boosted patients.

Experts believe the omicron variant causes less severe illness than the delta or original variants of Covid, so why are hospital numbers continuing to go up? Dr. Paul says severity can mean a lot of things.

“So severity is a spectrum. Obviously, severity can be severe enough to be in the hospital, but could also be severe enough to cause death," he said.

NHRMC is not seeing omicron cause the number of deaths they’ve seen in the past, although deaths are still being reported. To explain, Paul laid a hypothetical example: Say a higher number of people were being hospitalized with the delta variant — say, for the sake of argument, 3 out of 10* — and only 1 out of 10* people with omicron are being hospitalized. You'd expect to see only a third of the hospitalizations during the omicron wave. Except, the omicron variant is spreading much faster than delta or the original strain — the science is still coming in, but omicron is likely at least four times as infectious as Covid's first wave and twice as infectious as delta. So, despite sending a smaller percentage of people to the hospital, omicron's high level of contagion has let it catch up and exceed delta's hospitalization numbers.

[*Editor's note: Paul used these numbers for the sake of example only, they aren't clinical figures.]

Related: A tantalizing clue to why omicron is spreading so quickly (NPR)

Despite the lower number of patients, NHRMC is still being affected by the surge, with impacts on testing, services, staffing, and more.

With a nationwide shortage on Covid tests, the hospital is not testing everyone that walks through the doors, Paul said. People who are exhibiting symptoms of any kind are being tested, as well as pregnant women in labor, potential psychiatric ward patients, and patients going in for surgery.

As during previous surges, some services are seeing delays. Starting a few weeks ago, the hospital began rescheduling surgeries that are not time-sensitive.

Staff shortages are not foreign to NHRMC. Paul said the country has been suffering a nurse shortage since before the pandemic — a systemic issue that goes up the pipeline to a lack of faculty in nursing programs — and that Covid has exacerbated that issue. Nurses are retiring and experiencing burnout. NHRMC, like hospitals around the country, has turned to traveling nurses — but those nurses are often paid two to three times more, so it's an expensive fix that many consider to be untenable in the long run.

During this surge, the hospital has seen more pediatric cases than it has ever seen before. According to Paul, that being said, it’s still not a lot. They’re still seeing in the single digits for young patients, some that would qualify for the vaccine and others that wouldn’t. Many of those children in intensive care have comorbidities or are immunocompromised.

Hospitalizations can be prevented, according to Paul; it's just a matter of getting vaccines and boosters in arms. Paul noted that the booster vaccine has shown success against the omicron variant, and yet only a third of New Hanover County residents have received it.

Camille hails from Long Island, NY where the exuberance of sports season never ended. She graduated from Boston University with a BS in Journalism and double minors in Classical Civilizations and Philosophy. Chasing stories has been a passion of hers since she was little, channeling itself through her art and writing. Camille’s journey in audio is never ending and she’s served as a podcast producer on multiple shows. When she’s not working she enjoys chatting and gaming with friends, reading, and creating digital art.