UH, Cleveland Clinic urge vigilance as COVID-19 positivity rate soars

Faced with crowded emergency departments, overwhelmed ICUs, exhausted healthcare workers, lax adherence to public health guidelines and another surge of a highly contagious variant of COVID-19, Cleveland’s hospital leaders are yet again pleading for vigilance and vaccinations.

With 199 cases per 100,000 residents, Cuyahoga County ranks the third-highest among U.S. counties for COVID-19 cases, according to data analysis by The New York Times updated Tuesday, Dec. 21

“This has been 22 months of this pandemic, and it is taking a toll,” Dr. Claudia Hoyen, University Hospitals’ co-director of infection control, said during a joint media briefing with UH and Cleveland Clinic on Tuesday. “It’s just imperative that we allow our hospitals to continue to function and to function for all of our patients, not just COVID patients.”

Hoyen, who also leads pediatric infection control for UH Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital, said it’s important to know that the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 is much more contagious. In fact, she said it is “the second most contagious virus on the planet currently,” behind measles.

“It’s just very important for people to understand that we are in a much different position than we actually were even were two weeks ago and that we all need to be on guard,” Hoyen said, “because the potential number of people getting infected, even if it turns out that this virus does not cause a severe disease in people — we don’t know that right now; that information is still forthcoming — we must assume that it is as serious as Delta. If that’s the case, we are going to be overrun.”

UH’s rate of positive COVID tests is higher than ever, and it has more COVID-positive patients in its hospitals than ever before, with 394 currently in the system, 19% of whom are in the ICU, said Dr. Daniel Simon, UH’s president of academic and external affairs and chief scientific officer. The two systems on Tuesday opened a joint drive-through testing site at the Walker Building, with the support of the Ohio National Guard.

The rate of positive tests for symptomatic patients has doubled at Cleveland Clinic in just two weeks, jumping from 25% to 50%, said Dr. Raed Dweik, chairman of the Clinic’s Respiratory Institute. The rate for tests of patients with no symptoms has doubled as well, from 20% to 40%.

“But what’s most alarming to me is that those who are coming to test for procedures, for example before a surgery, before a procedure, our testing positivity rate was less than 1%, and now it’s approaching 10% — almost 10 times higher,” Dweik said. “These are very alarming numbers, and no wonder then that our hospitals are filling up with COVID cases.”

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He emphasizes that 80% of those who are hospitalized with COVID are unvaccinated, and 90% of the COVID patients in the ICU haven’t been vaccinated. The others are considered the vaccinated vulnerable, or those who have immune system issues for various reasons.

“On top of all of that, this year, unlike last year, we are seeing also flu and RSV out there, and that really is adding to the burden of infections,” Dweik said. “So it’s very important for us to really try to stay safe by sticking to the basics of masking, social distancing and getting a vaccine if you have not done so already or a booster if you have been vaccinated.”

Hoyen stressed that vaccines remain the first and best line of defense for individuals, communities and to help support the hospitals. As people gather in the next few days and weeks with friends and family, she asks that they adhere to what’s well known in the public health toolbox.

“All of us want this to be over,” said Shannon Pengel, chief nursing officer at the Clinic’s main campus. “All of us want to get back to normal, but please, get vaccinated, wear a mask if you’re out in public, and stay socially distanced this holiday season.”

This story first appeared in our sister publication, Crain’s Cleveland Business.

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