Why COVID hospitalization are down but cases are up

From overwhelmed to optimistic, Holy Name Medical Center was the epicenter of virus hospitalizations at the peak of the pandemic.

“By the end of the first day we had five or six patients, and by the end of the first weekend we had over a dozen patients. And then we were adding 10 to 20 patients a day, and we peaked out at about 251 patients,” said Dr. Adam Jarrett, Holy Name’s chief medical officer.

But just a few weeks ago, the hospital got down to zero positive patients. Jarrett says now the number sits around three to five cases at a time.

“There’s no doubt that from our peak we are way down. And I think that what we’re experiencing now is likely going to be the new normal for quite a period of time, if we’re fortunate enough to not have that next wave that everyone is talking about,” he said.

He says most current coronavirus patients come in for other medical issues and only discover they were infected through mandatory testing at the hospital. Jarrett says other hospitals in the state are seeing similar trends.

So why are hospitalization rates are down but the number of cases are going up? New Jersey Department of Health Medical Director Dr. Ed Lifshitz explains.

“For one thing, we have shifted somewhat to a younger age group, so more younger people are getting this and luckily they tend not to get as ill, or end up being hospitalized or of course dying,” Lifshitz said at Wednesday’s coronavirus briefing. “For the state as a whole, it is very concerning because those younger people can infect other people.”

Jarrett believes another factor may be that the virus has changed.

“In a way that it’s less virulent. I think we have to be very cautious about saying that because I don’t want people to think that it’s therefore OK to not do the social distancing as much,” he said. And the other possibility, and this is the one that’s most concerning, is that this is early stages of the beginnings of that next wave, and we’ll have to see whether that is the case. I am cautiously optimistic that right now it is not. I think the virus affected different parts of the state differently, and that because we had a significantly higher case rate up here, maybe our herd immunity is slightly better.”

Still, many experts believe for COVID-19 to stop spreading, about 70 to 80% of the population needs immunity.

“Even in harder hit parts of New Jersey, we don’t have anywhere near that number of people who are currently immune,” said Lifshitz.

“Hopefully the way it’s going to get done is with vaccinations that hopefully will be available early next year,” Jarrett said.

Holy Name is preparing for all possible outcomes. Jarrett says they now have the space and personal protective equipment ready in case of a second wave. They’ve also partnered with a company that connects hospitals and health care workers because they witnessed first hand staff shortages during the hospital’s peak.