As the more contagious delta variant sows more coronavirus infections among the country’s unvaccinated, it has also started to send more unprotected Americans to the hospital, straining health care centers in portions of the Midwest, the West and the South.
COVID-19 hospitalizations are trending upward in 45 states, though levels remain well below previous peaks. In parts of the country with relatively low vaccination rates, including Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and Nevada, hospitalizations have increased more rapidly.
Hospital staff members and health officials in these areas say the rise has come quickly and unexpectedly, driven by the more aggressive delta variant, low vaccination coverage and their communities’ return to the social activities of pre-pandemic life.
At Mercy Hospital in Springfield, Missouri, in a county where just over one-third of the population is fully vaccinated, staff say that this summer’s surge in patients came nearly five times as fast as last fall. In just over a month, the hospital’s COVID patient count grew to 115 from 26, and it briefly faced a shortage of ventilators.
And now with 155 COVID patients, the hospital has far surpassed its last peak and expects to see more than 200 patients by early August. To prepare, it is readying a third intensive care unit for patients with COVID-19.
“I think any community that has low vaccination rates and has not experienced this yet better get ready,” said Erik Frederick, chief administrative officer at Mercy Hospital Springfield. “Because what we are seeing with this delta variant, it’s not an ‘if,’ it’s a ‘when.’”
Hospital and state officials across the country report that a vast majority of people hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated. Nationally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 97% of patients who have gone to the hospital with COVID-19 have not been immunized.
And while breakthrough cases and hospitalizations can happen for those who are vaccinated, officials say that these patients tend to be less sick because the vaccines are highly protective against severe illness and death.
Vaccination patterns — and the high rates of coverage among the country’s oldest and lower rates among the young — also seem to have changed who is coming to the hospital.
“We have seen the elderly population like we had before,” said Shannon Nachtigal, chief nursing officer at Baxter Regional Medical Center in Mountain Home, Arkansas. “But with this surge, they are definitely more of a younger group — people in their 30s and 40s.”
At Mercy Springfield in Missouri, just over half of patients are under the age of 60.
“You walk through the ICUs, and you just look, and you’re like, ‘Wow, those people don’t look much older than me,’” added Frederick, who is 48. “It’s a little alarming to see.”
National data reveal a similar shift. While the overall number of people newly admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 each day is lower now than it was in January, the share of those admitted younger than age 60 has grown. In July, about 54% of new admissions were people younger than 60, and in early January, it was 36%.
The delta variant’s ability to spread may also be to blame for the shifting demographics of people going to the hospital with COVID.
“If it’s more transmissible, it’s more likely to also transmit to healthy individuals as well as people who are less healthy,” said Dr. Thomas Tsai, an assistant professor of health policy at Harvard University. “You may have an increase in hospitalizations just because you are putting a broader swath of individuals at risk.”
But with the vaccine readily available to most Americans, hospital staff say it has been frustrating to watch people of all ages suffer when there is now a weapon to fight back.
“It makes me so sad that we are doing this again, because it is so preventable at this point,” said Dr. Rachel C. Keech, an inpatient physician serving Mercy Hospital’s eastern Missouri region, who helped the Mercy Springfield location in recent weeks.
“The first three waves, we didn’t have this great tool of vaccines, and now we do,” she added. “It’s really heartbreaking.”