By Mark Koosau and Daniel Israel
As COVID-19 surges to levels not seen before in Hudson County, hospitals across the county are contending with an increase in patients, potentially fueled by the highly transmittable Omicron variant.
The county has had an average of 2,090 COVID cases per day since Jan. 6, the highest it’s been since the pandemic began. From Dec. 24 to 30, the county had an average of 152 hospitalizations for COVID, a dramatic increase from an average of 31 COVID hospitalizations around the beginning of last December.
“The volume to the emergency department really spiked around the holidays,” said Dr. Michael Loftus, the Chief Medical Officer at Jersey City Medical Center. “We’ve seen a big uptick as well following the holidays in the number of admissions. So in this particular wave, we’ve seen the number of admissions increasing day over day at a very alarming rate”
At Hoboken University Medical Center, which has also seen an increase in admissions, the rate of hospitalizations is lower than before and ICU admissions are down, according to Dr. John Rimmer, the center’s Chief Medical Officer. “We’re seeing again less ventilator use and less deaths,” he said.
Dr. Daniel Vargas, Chief Physician Executive at Palisades Medical Center in North Bergen, also said that the hospital was witnessing a surge.
On the other hand, Dr. Nizar Kifaieh, President and Chief Executive Officer of Hudson Regional Hospital in Secaucus, said that the hospital was seeing an increase in patients but that they had a quick turnaround.
Hospital beds filling up
Out of around 115 beds at Palisades Medical Center, 55 were filled with COVID-19 patients, according to Vargas.
“The mix of people that were seen in the hospital are a combination of people who are coming in for other issues and incidentally test positive for COVID-19,” Vargas said. “Others are people who are showing up with respiratory illness and test positive.”
At Hudson Regional Hospital, Kifaieh said there are only six patients admitted to hospital with COVID-19 out of the 106 beds at the hospital, and only one of them is in the Intensive Care Unit.
“The higher volume of COVID-19 positive people, the higher percentage of admissions you’re going to have just by sheer numbers and percentages,” Kifaieh said. “But the patients with COVID-19 that are presenting, they’re a lot less sicker than before, like a year ago… It’s a pretty quick turnover, because a lot of these patients are not very sick, so they can discharge quickly.”
Many people coming into the emergency room at Palisades Medical Center fall into one of three categories, Vargas said: those who may have been exposed, those presenting respiratory symptoms, and the typical patient. He added most admitted patients for COVID-19 are un-vaccinated and that vaccination “makes all the difference in the world.”
“The volume has been very high for a long time now because of issues like care delays through 2020 and 2021, etcetera,” Vargas said. “That has been a challenge for the hospital even before this surge started to happen. We have been busting at the seams all of 2021.”
While hospitalizations have increased, hospital officials say that the levels and severity haven’t reached to that of previous surges, including the beginning of pandemic and last year’s winter surge.
Causes of the surge?
The potential cause of the recent surge is the Omicron variant. Research has suggested that it’s less severe than other variants, but it’s high transmissibility can still cause hospitalization volumes to increase.
“It’s really a numbers game,” said Loftus. “If fewer people get really sick, but a lot more people get sick overall, you could still end up with a higher number of hospitalizations just based on the sheer numbers of people who are sick.”
“I think that’s kind of what we’re seeing out there,” he continued. “It’s that there are a lot of infected patients. Not all of them are ending up in the hospital. But the overall numbers of those who are in the hospital and who are critically ill are rising rapidly just because the overall population who’s infected has grown so quickly.”
Vargas said that the surge was a combination of the increased indoor gatherings and travel during the holidays as well as Omicron.
“I don’t think there is any question that what we’re seeing right now is likely related to the holidays,” Vargas said. “We started seeing the surge again with Thanksgiving. Then we had Christmas, which kind of created more substrate to get infected with Omicron. Then you’ll probably see an uptick in the week or two following New Year’s.”
“The other confounding variable is that in the north, the overwhelming majority of cases are Omicron, which is much more transmissible,” he continued. “Omicron continues to fuel the surge. Fortunately, omicron is much milder and seems to have a shorter duration of symptoms.”
“The Hudson County hospitals are behaving a lot like the New York City hospitals did, which was very quickly transitioning from Delta being the predominant variant to Omicron being the predominant variant,” continued Vargas. “That means a lot more people are get infected in a very short period of time. A lot of folk are going to come to the hospital, but very few will actually be admitted. These folks are going to be a lot less acute and a lot less severely ill.”
According to Kifaieh, the variant is more contagious, but has milder symptoms. “Before, with COVID-19, we used to see patients that come in and they have all these horrible complications,” said Kifaieh. “We’re not really seeing that with these patients.”
Another major issue that hospitals in the county and the greater state of New Jersey are facing are staffing shortages due to COVID positivity.
A stress point for hospitals is staff testing positive for COVID while hospitalizations increase simultaneously, according to Rimmer, with over 100 staff members at Hoboken University Medical Center testing positive for COVID on the week of Dec. 26.
Jersey City Medical Center has also seen staff shortages from the recent wave. The amount of staff members that were out were not disclosed, but Loftus said that they are focused on protecting their staff and each other.
“We try to create the safest environment we can at work because we can’t afford additional staff going out at a time where we’re expecting numbers to continue to increase,” he said.
Palisades Medical Center also coped with staff shortages, with many testing positive. “If I look at our team members who are getting infected, 100 percent of them are vaccinated except for a handful of medically exempt folks,” said Vargas. “But even though the number of infections is going up, the number of hospital admissions has remained low. So vaccination makes all the difference in the world.”
Hudson Regional Hospital was no stranger to the shortages, taking any precaution it could to protect staff including making as many employees work remotely as possible.
“We tested over 55 employees and the infection rate was, out of that entire number, probably less than 20 percent tested positive,” said Kifaieh. “In the first week of January, we tested about 50 employees and almost half of them had COVID. We had so much preparation done in anticipation of this that we were able to deal with it, so we haven’t had any areas in the hospital that are lacking staff, but staffing itself overall was a big challenge.”
As the recent wave of COVID cases continue, hospital officials said that the surge won’t go down for a while longer, potentially for a few weeks.
“We’re sort of preparing for a peak in the next couple of weeks,” said Loftus. “We’re then very much hoping that the rapid rise is associated with a rapid fall, though we will have to just take it as it comes and manage through the volume as it comes to the Medical Center.”
“Our hope will be that there will come a time when we get past the mid-January point that we’ll start to see the number of new cases drop, which means that the number of people coming into the hospital will be less than the number of people coming to the hospital,” Vargas said. “And the hospital numbers will drop along with that… I think in all models that we’ve seen here in the state of New Jersey that are really kind of pointing to mid-January as a sort of peak in hospitalizations. That’s what we are prepared for.”
Kifaieh echoed the other officials adding that people are taking COVID-19 more serious again. “I also believe that especially now, with the huge scare because of the surge in COVID-19, a lot more people are wearing masks and taking more seriously than they did before, Kifaieh said. “So I do believe the numbers will slow down.”
For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Mark Koosau can be reached at email@example.com or his Twitter @snivyTsutarja. Daniel Israel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.