The latest numbers of COVID-19 hospitalizations at Sanford Health are the lowest they’ve been since the pandemic began in March 2020.
BA.2, a subvariant of omicron, isn’t affecting patients as severely as past variants.
“I think that is the true measure of where we’re at from a pandemic standpoint,” said Jeremy Cauwels, M.D., Sanford’s chief physician. “We don’t see hospitals on the coasts or Europe overwhelmed by this particular wave, which is substantially smaller than what we’ve seen previously.”
That news is promising for health care workers who have continued to provide care through several waves of the coronavirus, now getting a chance to take a breath.
“They really are getting that chance to say, ‘All right, less COVID in the hospital and more of the normal business we’re used to and more reconnecting and understanding the work we did three years ago, connecting back on surgeries, screening tests and all of those things we do every day, for the health maintenance of our population.’”
While BA.2 is the dominant variant in the United States, medical leaders are monitoring a couple variants in Asia and other parts of the world that will try to emerge and compete.
Dr. Cauwels said we’re seeing continued trends toward increased transmissibility but — fortunately — not increasing severity right now.
Boosters for seniors, high-risk patients
Adults ages 50 and older may receive up to four doses of the COVID-19 vaccine at Sanford Health.
There is good data to suggest repeating a booster dose will do a good job keeping individuals out of the hospital if they test positive for this new BA.2 variant.
Data from Israel shows the risk for severe COVID-19, hospitalization and death, drops by 79% in vaccinated adults over age 60.
Read: COVID vaccine boosters available at Sanford Health
“It’s a good time to get re-dosed particularly in those age groups,” Dr. Cauwels said. “My parents are in their early 70s and got their fourth dose last week.”
The risk of severe COVID-19 in the younger population appears low at this time while risk remains higher in older populations and those with compromised immune systems.
Vaccine + natural immunity still effective protection
If you had a mild case of COVID-19 recently and are wondering about your immunity with conversations around the booster dose, Dr. Cauwels said you likely have good protection.
But it’s worth a conversation with your primary care provider to find out if and when a booster is right for you.
Listen: Health and Wellness podcast: Infectious disease specialist talks COVID-19
“What we need to do now is just make sure that we’re protecting those folks who are at the highest risk,” Dr. Cauwels said.
He said more and more patients are seeking care weeks and months after a COVID-19 case with lingering health concerns. The World Health Organization said nearly 100 million are suffering from “long COVID” effects, which can include lung, heart and neurologic concerns.
While there is not widespread treatment for “long COVID” at this time, Dr. Cauwels recommends seeing your primary care provider who may refer you to a specialist to properly address your needs.
A recently published study from the Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology Journal found an increased risk of diabetes within a year of recovering from COVID-19.
“It’s something you only really truly understand as you start to look at the population as a whole and realize that the incidence of diabetes is increasing during all of this,” Dr. Cauwels said. “I think those are the main reasons why preventing people from getting infected and making sure they get their vaccines is extremely important to make sure they are as protected as possible.”
One thing providers see routinely, he said, are patients who test positive for COVID-19 after being vaccinated have a fairly mild disease with little chance of developing complications later.
Vaccine for kids under 5 not ready
The FDA delayed its decision to authorize the use of the Pfizer vaccine for younger children until data on the effects of three doses is available.
The data originally presented didn’t do the job it was supposed to do – to prove the vaccine effectiveness in the doses chosen for small children.
“Adjusting that dose is fine and what we do in almost all dose studies for most vaccines,” Dr. Cauwels said. “In most cases, we’re not under this kind of a time crunch so that’s why waiting for this one seems like it’s a step or two longer than it was in the past.”
It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation to make sure the vaccine is safe and effective for kids in that age group before it’s submitted for use and brought to the market.
Right now, the vaccine is available, safe and effective, for kids 5 years and older.
Watch: What you need to know about the COVID-19 vaccine for kids 5+
The vaccine for kids has proven “extraordinarily protective” in preventing common life-threatening issues with COVID-19, Dr. Cauwels said, like a multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C) up to two months after infection.
Additionally, long-term “long COVID” effects are common in both children just like they are in adults.
Pregnant women at higher risk for COVID
New data shows women who are pregnant are more likely to get infected than non-pregnant women.
“The analysis, based on medical records of nearly 14 million U.S. patients since coronavirus immunization became available, found that pregnant people who are vaccinated have the greatest risk of developing COVID among a dozen medical states, including being an organ transplant recipient and having cancer,” the Washington Post states.
It’s still important for women who are pregnant, looking to become pregnant or breastfeeding to be vaccinated. It not only helps protect mom during pregnancy, but also reduces the risk of serious illness and complications.
New data, published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, links COVID-19 infection in pregnancy to a higher risk of stillbirth or miscarriage, severe illness and potentially needing intensive care.
Additionally, evidence about the safety of the vaccination during pregnancy continues to grow.
Read: Pregnant or breastfeeding? CDC says to get COVID-19 vaccine
Keeping women out of the hospital, reducing the risk for issues and protecting baby are some big wins for the vaccine, according to Dr. Cauwels.
“Getting that vaccine either before you get pregnant, or as soon as you find out is absolutely a key to making sure you’re protecting yourself as well as possible.”
Information in this story was accurate when it was posted. As the COVID-19 pandemic changes, scientific understanding and guidelines may have changed since the original publication date.
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Posted In COVID-19, Expert Q&A, Immunizations