COURT HOUSE – The staggering growth in Covid cases is impacting county health care systems.
Covid case numbers are breaking records. As of Jan. 7, Cape May County reported 2,282 active community cases. There is general agreement that that number is probably an undercount, given the availability of home test results that go unreported.
For the first seven days of 2022, the county averaged 210 new cases a day. Even with the state’s adoption of the reduced quarantine timeframes sanctioned by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), infected individuals cannot clear the shorter timeframes faster than the new cases pile up. The result is a growing active caseload.
Worse, after an apparent drop in Covid mortality numbers, the county reported 13 Covid-related deaths in the first seven days of the new year. The report on the county dashboard for Dec. 31 showed 249 total fatalities since the beginning of the pandemic. The report issued by the county Jan. 7 showed 262.
Hospitalizations in the southern seven New Jersey counties are up 45% since New Year’s Eve. At Cape Regional Medical Center (CRMC), the number of Covid patients Dec. 6 was five. CRMC Jan. 3 reported 33 Covid patients. The number grew to 56 Jan. 10.
Omicron Can Overwhelm Due to Sheer Volume
What many national health officials have presented as good news is that omicron is not causing the same level of serious illness that was associated with the delta variant. Despite the record hospitalizations in New Jersey and Cape May County, the number of infections in the community is growing at a much faster pace than hospitalizations.
It is the sheer volume of those infected with the virus that is driving hospitalizations, even though required in a smaller percentage of cases, to grow rapidly.
As of Jan. 1, the CDC variant tracking system reported that omicron is far and away the dominant variant responsible for the recent surge in cases. CDC data shows omicron behind 95.4% of all new cases. That, it turns out, should be good news.
Health officials continue to point to multiple studies that show omicron able to breach the body’s defenses, causing not only new infections, but high levels of breakthrough cases in people who have been either vaccinated or previously infected. The stunning ability to infect does not appear to carry over to an ability to damage the lungs, a key factor in the percentage of serious illness.
Still, no one should dismiss the variant. Advanced age has always been the biggest risk factor with Covid in all its variations. Not enough is known about omicron and its impact as it reaches older, more vulnerable populations. The ability of omicron to partially evade natural and vaccine immunity means more seniors will be infected. Of the 13 county fatalities reported in 2022, 10 were above the age of 65.
Studies continue to show the vaccines, especially in those who have had the booster, are effective in preventing serious complications. In Cape May County, less than half, 43%, of those fully vaccinated received the booster shot. With the booster shot seen by most health officials as the best defense against serious complications, the majority of county residents have stopped short of getting it.
Some medical researchers, including Dr. David Ho, of Columbia University, have talked of omicron as the pandemic killer. The variant produces dramatic increases in infection rates with high levels of cases characterized by mild symptoms.
The wave of infections experienced in the last few weeks, the argument goes, will ebb soon, leaving behind a wider spread of immunity in those infected. It will also have increased protections in those convinced by the surge to get the vaccine.
Others argue that seeing mild infections as a pathway to defeating the pandemic is trivializing the risks involved in the current surge. The CDC has warned that long-Covid, a syndrome of symptoms that persist long after the initial infection, can present, even following mild cases. It is too early to know the impact of omicron on long-Covid rates.
CDC Sows Confusion
Just after Christmas, as the present surge in cases climbed to new heights, the CDC shortened the period of isolation for those infected with Covid and updated its recommended quarantine period for those exposed to an infected individual.
The CDC’s new recommendations for the shorter quarantine period provoked backlash from many medical professionals, while the agency defended its stand as based on the newest science.
For many health professionals, the move was an attempt by the CDC to reduce the potential of the omicron surge to damage the economy through widespread and prolonged staff shortages.
The American Medical Association has called the change in CDC guidance “confusing and counterproductive.” However, New Jersey wasted no time in changing its Covid recommendations to align with the new CDC guidance.
Staff Shortages in Health Care Facilities
While officials tell the public not to panic, the National Guard is being deployed to hospitals and nursing homes due to severe infection-related or exposure-related staff shortages. At many facilities, staff infection rates are significantly higher than resident rates, according to the state’s dashboard.
That same dashboard shows 10 long-term care facilities in Cape May County experiencing outbreaks involving 85 residents and 155 staff. The county report for Jan. 7 shows 48 active resident cases.
The Press of Atlantic City reports that a National Guard team will be backfilling staff at the Crest Haven Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center in Court House beginning Jan. 10. The New Jersey National Guard meta site notes that more than 150 troops will be supporting staffing requirements at more than a dozen long-term care facilities in the state.
Cape Regional reports that staff shortages mean that the hospital cannot staff its standard 149 beds. As of Jan. 10, the hospital reported that it had staff for 103 beds, down 45% from its maximum.
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