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Connecticut’s positivity rate reaches 21.5% as health officials urge vaccination and booster shots

Nyasia Porter, a COVID screener, performs a COVID-19 nasal swab test in Hartford.
Yehyun Kim
Nyasia Porter, a COVID screener, performs a COVID-19 nasal swab test in Hartford.

Connecticut’s daily COVID positivity rate reached 21.5% Monday, setting another record as the highly contagious omicron variant continued its spread throughout the state.

Hospitalizations increased by 301, bringing the total to 1,452. Of those, 68.8% were people who are not fully vaccinated, state officials said. The data include numbers from Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

“I know people are scared and are concerned with hearing about a new variant yet again,” Dr. Manisha Juthani, the state’s public health commissioner, said at a news conference in Stamford Monday morning. “The good news is, if you’re vaccinated and particularly if you’re boosted, the majority of people are having mild symptoms.”

“As you heard about what happens with viruses as they adapt over time, they do become more infectious and less virulent,” she said. “But for the unvaccinated, this is still a very serious disease. … Throughout our state, 70% to 80% of people in the hospital are unvaccinated. The unvaccinated have reason to be scared.”

Hospital leaders said Monday that they are dealing with a challenging influx of cases.

Dr. Syed Hussain, chief clinical officer at Trinity Health, described the current spike in cases as the worst of the pandemic so far. He noted that the state is still weeks away from its peak.

“We do have several weeks that are going to be difficult. Our health care staff are anxious. They’re tired. We’ve been at this now for two years,” he said.

Trinity Health has 166 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, which is more than at this time last year, but less than during the original peak in the spring of 2020.

Hussain said the hospital system doesn’t currently have any concerns about capacity. Unvaccinated patients represent 75% of the hospitalizations.

Hussain urged people to get a booster shot.

“We have studies now from the U.K. that indicate a two-dose messenger RNA vaccine confers about 35% protectiveness against the omicron variant, but that goes up to 75% as long as the booster is taken,” he said.

Hartford HealthCare reported 389 COVID-19 patients hospitalized across its health system, 53 of which are in intensive care units.

“If I was to contrast this to back in the first surge, when we had about 425 patients across the system, we had 128 people in ICU at that time,” said Dr. Ajay Kumar, Hartford HealthCare’s chief clinical officer. “A little less than 50% of the people are in the ICU at this time, given the similar number of individuals across the system.”

Kumar said the health system has capacity in its critical care areas, though the emergency departments have been busy.

“What we’re seeing right now in the emergency room is a lot of patients coming in either for mild symptoms or sometimes only testing, and they’re generally requiring some care,” he said.

Hartford HealthCare has not had to cancel or postpone elective surgeries except in cases where a patient tests positive for coronavirus. Kumar estimated that it had happened in “less than five” cases recently.

Across the Yale New Haven Health system, 513 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Friday. Marna Borgstrom, CEO of the health system, said there were “just over 100” when December began, a five-fold increase in a month. Seventy-six of the patients were in an intensive care unit, and 49 were on ventilators.

Between 75% and 90% of patients are unvaccinated, YNHH officials said. Of those vaccinated, only a “tiny fraction” were boosted.

“It’s very, very uncommon for us to see a boosted, vaccinated patient in our ICU,” said Dr. Tom Balcezak, chief medical officer at Yale New Haven Health. “In fact, across our ICUs, I’ve only seen one or two. And these individuals were pretty severely immunocompromised, meaning they had other illnesses that prevented their immune system from generating the antibodies from the shots.”

Nineteen children were admitted to the health system with coronavirus, five of whom were in intensive care units.

“We’ve never seen numbers like this before,” Balcezak said. “This is about four times the amount of patients that we have ever seen at one point in our children’s hospital.”

Hospital leaders issued another plea for people to get vaccinated and boosted.

“What’s challenging, particularly, is that some of our peaks most recently have come during the holiday season … Our staff is being called upon more and more. They are tired, they are frustrated with some of what’s given rise to this,” Borgstrom said.

“If you haven’t been vaccinated, get vaccinated, Borgstrom said. “If you’ve been vaccinated and haven’t been boosted, what are you waiting for? … Get vaccinated, boosted and wear masks. It could reduce the number of patients that we’re caring for remarkably, and that would make a big difference.”

People who are mildly symptomatic should not go to the hospital looking for a COVID-19 test, officials said.

“Please do not come to our urgent care centers or our emergency departments if you are mildly symptomatic,” Balcezak said. “If you are feeling very ill, short of breath, yes, please do come. But if you are simply curious about whether you may have COVID — act like you do, meaning self-isolate.”

Yale New Haven recently reinstituted a no-visitor policy for hospitalized patients. Exceptions may be made for laboring mothers, patients at the end of life, pediatric patients and in other circumstances. Exceptions are made on a case-by-case basis, officials said.

Yale New Haven has stopped taking walk-ups at its testing sites. Testing is now done by appointment only.

“All of our appointments are taken. We have the capacity within our lab to do approximately 40,000 tests per week, and we are at that capacity,” Balcezak said. “We are working hard to try to expand that capacity. But it will take time to build staff and machines and the footprint in order to do that.”

FDA authorizes boosters for 12-to-15-year-olds

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Monday approved the use of COVID-19 booster shots in 12-to-15-year-olds. The Pfizer vaccine is the only authorized booster for that age group.

The agency also said that adults and teenagers who received the two-dose Pfizer vaccine regimen now have to wait only five months to get a booster shot. People who received the two-dose Moderna regimen should still wait at least six months to seek a booster.

“Based on the FDA’s assessment of currently available data, a booster dose of the currently authorized vaccines may help provide better protection against both the delta and omicron variants,” Dr. Peter Marks, director of the agency’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research, said in a statement. “In particular, the omicron variant appears to be slightly more resistant to the antibody levels produced in response to the primary series doses from the current vaccines.”

The FDA is also permitting some immunocompromised children ages 5 to 11 to get a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. Children who have undergone solid organ transplants or who have been diagnosed with “conditions that are considered to have an equal level of immunocompromise” are eligible, the agency said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must still sign off on the new policies. An advisory panel to the CDC is set to meet this week, and the agency could make a decision soon after.

Copyright 2022 Connecticut Public Radio. To see more, visit Connecticut Public Radio.

Jenna Carlesso and Katy Golvala // CTMirror.org