US sets new record for COVID-19 hospitalizations

The United States on Tuesday set a new record for COVID-19 hospitalizations, with more than 145,000 people in the hospital with the virus.

The 145,982 people hospitalized with COVID-19, according to Department of Health and Human Services data, surpasses the previous peak of about 142,000 people set in January 2021, during a major winter surge before vaccines were widely available.

People who are vaccinated and especially those who received their booster shots are well protected against severe disease and hospitalization from the virus. But the sheer number of cases of COVID-19, fueled by the highly transmissible omicron variant, means that even a small percentage leading to hospitalization causes a surge that strains hospitals.

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The hospitalizations are driven in large part by people who are unvaccinated.

Carlos del Rio, an infectious disease doctor at Emory University and at Grady Hospital in Atlanta, said last week that 80 to 90 percent of the patients primarily in the hospital for COVID-19 were unvaccinated, or in some cases had two shots of vaccine (without a booster) and had an underlying condition.

About a third of the patients with the virus, he said, have tested positive for COVID-19 but are not primarily in the hospital because of the virus. 

Hospital staffing shortages, including from health workers being home sick with the virus themselves, are adding the problem.

“The percent in the ICU is much lower [than previous surges], but that doesn’t mean that we're not getting overwhelmed,” del Rio said.

Overwhelmed hospitals also reduce the quality of care for vaccinated people who need help for non-COVID-19 issues, like a car crash or a heart attack.

The U.S. is now recording an unprecedented average of more than 700,000 cases per day, according to a New York Times tracker, though many of those cases are mild. Deaths, however, are also now rising, with an average of around 1,600 per day.