Covid-19 surge could peak later this month, expert says, but coming weeks are critical

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Dr Ashish Jha, Dean of Brown University School of Public Health, warns that long-term planning is needed to avoid continued strain on the health system as hospitals are full, schools struggle to keep students in class and tests remain difficult to access.

“We see two sets of things happening: a lot of people who are vaccinated are infected. We are well. For the most part, avoid getting particularly sick, avoid the hospital; a lot of unvaccinated people and high risk people who haven’t been stimulated and they’re really filling hospitals, and therefore our hospital systems are under a lot of stress, ”Jha told ABC’s“ This Week ”.

“Then we have to start thinking about a long term strategy of how to deal with this virus and not go from one outbreak to another with the feeling that we don’t really have a longer term approach. “said Jha.

According to data from the US Department of Health and Human Services, about 24% of hospitals report a “critical staff shortage.”

Of the roughly 5,000 hospitals that reported the data to HHS on Saturday, nearly 1,200 – about 1 in 4 – said they are currently experiencing a severe staff shortage, the biggest part of the entire pandemic. More than 100 other hospitals have said they anticipate a shortage over the next week.

These staff shortages are increasing as frontline health workers are either infected or forced into quarantine due to exposure to Covid-19, just as demand for treatment skyrockets: more than 138,000 Covid-19 patients were in US hospitals on Sunday, according to HHS. That’s not far from the all-time peak (around 142,200 in mid-January 2021) and an increase from around 45,000 in early November.

“I expect this surge to peak in the next two weeks. It will peak in different places in America at different times, but once we get into February I really do expect numbers of cases. much, much lower, “Jha told ABC.

One of the essential tools in the fight against Covid-19 is testing, which is still difficult to find in parts of the United States.

As labs struggle to cope with increased demand for Covid-19 testing triggered by the booming Omicron variant, at least two healthcare providers have prioritized coronavirus testing for those showing symptoms of the virus.

Last week, several sites in the University of Washington health care system in Washington state began prioritizing testing only for people “who have symptoms of respiratory illness or have known exposure to COVID. -19, “spokeswoman Susan Gregg told CNN. People without symptoms are not tested, said Gregg, “due to the high volume of Omicron cases that are being processed in our lab.”

The University of North Carolina Medical Center at Chapel Hill is facing a similar test crash and is also limiting Covid-19 testing to those with symptoms of Covid-19, as well as to university employees and to those needing a test before surgery, according to UNC Health Information Director Alan M. Wolf.

In Georgia, the Ministry of Health announcement the opening of two mega-Covid-19 testing sites on Friday, as cases statewide continue to rise. Both sites, which are located just outside of Atlanta, are by appointment only. The state’s health department said it was also in talks to identify locations for additional testing sites.

Dr Jonathan Reiner, professor of medicine and surgery at George Washington University, said testing is a major key to controlling the spread of Covid-19, including in schools, which struggle to keep children in classrooms in areas of high transmission.

“If you want to bring kids and teachers back to schools, the way to do it is a multi-pronged approach, including flooding our schools with tests. Testing children weekly, testing teachers weekly,” and demanding tests. teachers and students eligible to be vaccinated, he told CNN’s Jim Acosta on Sunday.

Reconciling health and education

Public schools in Chicago, the third largest school district in the country, are among those struggling to balance health concerns and educational needs.

Classes in the district were again canceled Monday for the fourth day of school in a row, after city officials and the Chicago Teachers Union failed to come to an agreement over the weekend on how to handle the surge. of Covid-19 in the city.
Negotiations between the Chicago Teachers Union and city officials stretch for another week as school is canceled for day four

The union, citing concerns about the safety of Covid, wants a period of distance learning, while the city wants children in classrooms.

Atlanta schools resumed in-person classes Monday after four days of virtual learning.

Lisa Herring, superintendent of Atlanta Public Schools, told CNN that mandatory bi-weekly tests for teachers have been extended to students whose parents consent to the tests.

“We want, as much as possible, to keep our children inside the brick and mortar, but we need this data to be able to effectively support and keep everyone safe,” she said.

Out of about 50,000 students, they have received about 20,000 parental consent forms for testing, Herring said, and will continue to encourage more.

“We have several mitigation strategies in place that we know can help us keep children and staff in place when we are able to identify the positivity data.… But to be clear, we recognize also that in order to ensure health and well-being, there will be times in schools or classrooms where going virtual may be necessary, ”said Herring.

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The Unified School District of Los Angeles, the second largest school district in the country, is requiring all students and employees to test negative for Covid-19 before returning to class on Tuesday.

The basic test requirement was implemented at the start of the school year in August, and the district announced a week ago that the basic test, along with the required weekly tests for employees and students , would continue until January, given the current outbreak.

To help families meet this requirement, the district offered PCR testing at many school campuses over the past week. Take-home rapid antigen tests were also distributed, following Governor Gavin Newsom’s announcement in late December that every California student in Kindergarten to Grade 12 would receive one.

District data on Monday showed around 62,000 positive cases of Covid-19 among students and staff, preventing them from entering school buildings on Tuesday.

Dr Richina Bicette-McCain, medical director of Baylor College Medicine, told CNN on Sunday that schools are currently a higher risk environment for Covid-19 because the tools to mitigate its spread were not being used properly.

Bicette-McCain said students needed access to high-quality tests and masks and said HEPA filters could be used in schools to increase ventilation.

“Schools could potentially be very safe – we have the tools to make in-person learning a safe situation. But when the kids left for winter break, we saw maybe around 120 pediatric cases of Covid. in just one week we were seeing overall in the United States, about 170,000 cases per day, ”she said.“ Those numbers have grown exponentially. The environment children return to is not the same as the one they left from. “

She said the protocols had to change. “The numbers we are seeing are probably a gross understatement of the number of positive cases in the community right now.”

A wave hits hospitals

Hospitals continue to struggle with the number of cases.

In New York state, 40 hospitals have been required to stop elective non-essential and elective surgeries for at least two weeks due to low patient bed capacity, the Department of Health said on Saturday. ‘State in a press release.

At the end of November, Governor Kathy Hochul signed an executive order outlining a plan to deal with the winter wave of Covid-19. Part of that requires statewide hospital capacity to be able to meet regional needs “while maintaining the long-term resilience of the state’s health infrastructure,” the statement said. .

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In some hospitals, up to 40% of patients with Covid-19 “do not come in because they are sick with Covid, but because they arrive with something else and that Covid or the Omicron variant has been detected “said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said on Fox News Sunday.

Walensky said the CDC had screened “everyone who walked through the door” at many hospitals, and the distribution of patients admitted with Covid-19 – as opposed to for Covid-19 – differed by variant.

But Walensky also noted that while Omicron appears to be milder on an individual level, a large number of cases could lead to increased death rates.

Pediatric cases of Covid-19 are also increasing with more than 800 children admitted to hospital with Covid-19 every day, and nearly 84,000 have been hospitalized since the start of the pandemic, according to the latest data from the CDC.

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At Los Angeles Children’s Hospital, the positivity rate of children tested for Covid-19 has increased from 17.5% in December to 45% so far in January, according to CHLA medical director Dr Michael Smit.

CHLA currently has 41 in-house patients who have tested positive for Covid-19, and about a quarter of children admitted to the facility with Covid-19 require admission to the pediatric ICU, some requiring intubation, Smit told CNN Saturday.

Children face a lower risk of hospitalization for Covid-19 compared to other age groups, but “children are not supposed to die,” Walensky told Fox News on Sunday.

The “vast majority” of children hospitalized with Covid-19 are not vaccinated, and the best way to protect children from Covid-19 is to vaccinate everyone who qualifies, Walensky said.

CNN’s Natasha Chen, Anna-Maja Rappard, Deidre McPhillips, Tina Burnside and Keith Allen contributed to this report.

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