For nearly a month, COVID-19 hospitalizations have increased after weeks of declines and relatively low levels throughout the summer, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
As of Nov. 25, there were 19,444 weekly hospitalizations due to the virus compared to 15,006 four weeks earlier, the data shows.
While this marks a 29.6% increase, it is down from the 150,650 weekly hospitalizations at the peak of the omicron wave during the 2021-22 season.
Rates of COVID hospitalizations remain high among older people, middle-aged adults and children under 4 years old, meaning the virus is affecting both older and younger Americans.
“COVID is not gone, although it may have gone away from many people’s minds and attention,” Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told ABC News. “I’m afraid the COVID virus is still among us.”
He added: “These omicron variants and subvariants are highly contagious. They are causing many milder illnesses that do not require hospitalizations. However, there are substantial hospitalizations across the country.”
Vaccine protection declines among older people
Americans 65 and older have the highest rate of weekly hospitalizations of any age group in the US, as they have throughout the pandemic, at 13.5% per 100,000 for the week ending the Dec. 2, CDC data shows.
Experts said there are multiple reasons this age group has high rates of hospitalizations, including age as a risk factor for serious illness and older people having more chronic underlying medical conditions that increase the risk of serious illness.
Another reason is vaccine acceptance and waning immunity. While 94.4% of adults age 65 and older completed a primary series of the original vaccine, 33.3% of adults age 65 and older received the updated vaccine, according to CDC data.
“Many people, even if they have been vaccinated in the past, have not taken advantage of this updated vaccine,” Schaffner said. “And the protection provided by previous vaccines is now slowly waning. So we have a highly vulnerable population whose protection is slowly waning.”
People ages 50 to 64 have the second highest rate of weekly hospitalizations by age group, at 2.7% per 100,000. Experts similarly said this is a group that is beginning to see the emergence of underlying chronic conditions that increase the risk of severe COVID illness.
Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, a professor of medicine and infectious disease expert at the University of California, San Francisco, said another reason middle-aged and older Americans have higher hospitalization rates is that the most vulnerable of this group do not receive treatments such as Paxlovid. Reports have suggested that in some states it is prescribed in less than 25% of cases.
“It represents a failure of our system to intervene and provide early therapy,” Chin-Hong said. “You can’t just blame the vaccines because there is a get-out-of-jail-free card, which is Paxlovid and even remdesivir.”
While Paxlovid is only recommended for those at risk of severe disease, Chin-Hong said it has been a relatively underused treatment because some may feel they do not need the drug or doctors may hesitate to prescribe it due to concerns about how the drug works. . interacts with other prescription medications.
There is also some confusion about who pays for Paxlovid, Chin-Hong said. While it has been and will remain free through 2024 for people with Medicare or Medicaid, people with private insurance may have copays associated with the drug now that the government will no longer purchase or distribute it.
Young children are also at risk of serious illnesses
Infants and toddlers under age 4 have the third-highest rate of hospitalizations by age group, at 1.6% per 100,000 for the week ending Dec. 2, CDC data show.
Although children are less likely to get seriously ill and die from COVID compared to adults, they can get sick enough to be hospitalized.
Schaffner said it’s a fallacy for a parent to think their child doesn’t need to be vaccinated because they are relatively healthy because children can get very sick. What’s more, studies have shown that COVID vaccines reduce hospitalizations among children.
“It’s been very difficult for people to keep two seemingly contradictory notions in mind at the same time,” Schaffner said. “First of all, everyone knows that children are less likely to be seriously affected by COVID infections than older adults. The alternative concept that is difficult for parents to understand is that young children nevertheless represent the third most common age group for hospitalizations.
Chin-Hong said parents are less hesitant to vaccinate their children against influenza than against COVID-19. As of Nov. 18, 38.2% of children ages 6 months to 17 years had received the flu vaccine, CDC data shows. Comparatively, 6.9% of children had received an updated COVID vaccine as of November 25.
“More than twice as many get vaccinated against the flu,” he said. “So it’s not that everyone is saying ‘No’ to vaccines. They’re being selective.”
While COVID has not followed a traditional seasonal trend like the flu, experts say that for all age groups, there have been increases in hospitalizations during the colder months, when people start staying home, the heat, close the windows and people gather during the holidays. people together — “ideal conditions for respiratory viruses to spread,” said Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist and chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital and an ABC News contributor.
“As people gather for the holidays, it is crucial to remain vigilant about COVID-19, especially to protect vulnerable populations like the elderly and infants,” Brownstein continued. “Practicing good hygiene, such as washing your hands regularly, and staying home if you feel unwell is key. Additionally, ensuring adequate ventilation in indoor spaces and considering the use of masks in crowded environments can significantly reduce the risk of transmission”.
Experts also warned about the importance of staying up to date on COVID-19 vaccines and said it’s not too late to get vaccinated.
“Seriously, make a plan and do it as quickly as possible,” Schaffner said. “Getting vaccinated and making sure your family members are vaccinated, that is without a doubt, and I say this sincerely, the best gift you can give yourself and them this holiday season, and it will also help make your neighborhood and your community more insurance.”