Cincinnati Doctor: COVID's Omicron Variant Spreads as Fast as Measles

"It's one of the most transmissible viruses in the history of the world," says Deborah Hayes, president and CEO at The Christ Hospital.

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click to enlarge Deborah Hayes, president and CEO of The Christ Hospital, speaks to Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus (right) and Hamilton County Public Health Commissioner Greg Kesterman (center) via Zoom on Jan. 12, 2022. -
Deborah Hayes, president and CEO of The Christ Hospital, speaks to Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus (right) and Hamilton County Public Health Commissioner Greg Kesterman (center) via Zoom on Jan. 12, 2022.

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus is putting more Cincinnati residents into the hospital than ever before, and local health experts say it's time to start doing things differently.

During a Jan. 12 briefing with reporters, Deborah Hayes, president and CEO of The Christ Hospital, said that Omicron, the virus' latest variant, is changing the "rules" of the ongoing pandemic.

"One of the things about Omicron that is very different from all of the other variants of this COVID virus is that its transmissibility efficiency is at least twice what any of the other strains of this COVID virus has been," Hayes said. "It is a virus that spreads almost as, if not as, easily as measles."

"It's one of the most transmissible viruses in the history of the world," Hayes continued.

That echoes what Richard Lofgren, president and CEO at UC Health, said earlier this month. On Jan. 5, Lofgren said that the contagiousness of the Omicron variant, which has largely taken over as the dominant variant within the United States, was “just stunning.”

"It truly doubles the number of cases every two to three days,” Lofgren said. “It’s a math problem."

Virologists and other experts agree that the coronavirus spreads through the air via fine aerosol particles that can linger for hours, which is why scientists strongly recommend wearing masks — especially when indoors or among large groups — practicing physical distancing, having good ventilation and moving airflow, and avoiding large gatherings.

Scientific studies have shown that public masking — even when not everyone does so — can block a high percentage of coronavirus particles from spreading to others and can protect the wearer, as well.

Likewise, getting one of the three COVID-19 vaccination series available in the United States greatly protects people from severe illness and likely hospitalization should they be exposed to the coronavirus, including its variants like Omicron and Delta. Adding a booster provides even more protection against serious health challenges, experts say. And though even vaccinated people can still contract COVID-19, they are much less likely to need hospitalization; Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus said this week that 97% of the county's COVID patients were unvaccinated.

"The numbers of patients coming to the hospital to be admitted at this point is extraordinary compared to any other point in the pandemic, and the peak is not here yet," Hayes said.

Hospitals are full

The rapid spread of the Omicron variant has loaded hospitals with COVID-19 patients.

"We're at a critical stage in this pandemic," Hayes said. "The number of COVID patients in hospitals across this community is about 30% more than at any time during the pandemic to this date."

"More people in the state of Ohio are dying of COVID than at any other time during the pandemic. Over 100 (patients) a day are dying," John Ward, senior vice president of the Bethesda North Region of Tri-Health, said on Jan. 12. "That's like two-plus bus crashes every day with no survivors."

Virologists are still studying Omicron, which began spreading in earnest in November, but largely agree that infections may be slightly less severe than those from other COVID variants, especially in vaccinated individuals. But the sheer number of cases means that hospitals are overwhelmed.

"I've heard many times, 'Well, it (Omicron) is not as virulent as the Delta (variant), so why are the hospitals having a problem?'" Ward said. "Well, the numbers are so great. Even though the percentages of those ending up in the hospital is smaller, it is still a ton of people ending up in our hospitals and taking up all of our beds."

Cincinnati hospitals are strained with more patients and fewer resources. Hayes said that 100% of the beds at local hospitals currently are filled, plus 100% of beds in local intensive care units are filled daily. She added that there are long waits in emergency rooms and urgent cares, and hospital-to-hospital patient transfers for both COVID and non-COVID issues take longer to happen.

Hayes said that many people who are not healthcare workers assume that this surge of COVID-19 is being dealt with in the same way as previous surges, but things are different now, she said. More patient care is being delayed or canceled because hospitals simply don't have the resources to care for everyone.

"What's important to understand is that this is different than any other time during the pandemic," Hayes said.

In 2020, Hayes said, Ohio hospitals were mandated to shut down elective procedures and anything other than what was "absolutely necessary" to deal with COVID. But many of those patients whose surgeries and other procedures were delayed have since become sicker or developed additional health issues because they'd "put their healthcare on hold," Hayes said.

Fewer healthcare workers available

Now, local healthcare systems are trying to manage the current crush of COVID-19 patients alongside patients with other challenges and patients who had delayed their care for two years. This is happening as healthcare workers have become exhausted during the pandemic and are leaving the industry, creating staffing shortages throughout the area.

"We have got a very stressed workforce. They are stressed. They are burned out. They've been dealing with this for 22 months," Ward said.

"Our healthcare system is in crisis," added Julie Holt, chief nursing officer at The Christ Hospital. "It's a crisis now because we have widespread labor shortages in all industries, but it's especially exacerbated in healthcare because of the fatigue... burnout from all the deaths that we're experiencing, increased workloads and acuity of the patients that are in the hospitals, and then the personal illness and the family illness of our staff, which sometimes makes them unable to come to work."

Holt said that the current crisis is raising nurse-to-patient ratios — how many patients one nurse is able to accommodate — which can lessen patient care throughout the day. Likewise, Hayes said that physician-to-patient ratios also are changing.

"When nurse-to-patient ratios go up, we're limited in the care that we're able to provide — things like baths and linen changes and some of the nicer things we like to do for our patients," Holt said. "It can even challenge some of the things we have to do for our patients."

Hayes said that all local healthcare systems are now limiting elective in-patient surgeries, especially those that may require overnight stays. She added that health leaders will have to made additional decisions about reducing care as COVID numbers continue to climb.

"We are at a critical point," Hayes said. "We need the community's help... because unlike other businesses who are under tremendous stress as well... we cannot shut our doors, nor will we (shut) our doors and turn our lights off."

"We definitely need you to support these incredible healthcare workers, these heroes that have been getting it done every day for 22 months," Ward said.

High COVID spikes in Cincinnati

Local governments are responding to swelling COVID numbers with new measures. On Jan. 12, Cincinnati Mayor Aftab Pureval declared a state of emergency and announced a mask order for all city buildings. For the next 30 days, all city employees and all members of the public must wear face masks within Cincinnati city facilities to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

The Hamilton County Board of Commissioners also declared a public health state of emergency on Jan. 11 due to COVID-19.  The board had issued a state of emergency at the beginning of the pandemic in March of 2020 that expired in October of last year. Tuesday's declaration is a renewal of that order.

And on Jan. 11, Pureval joined with Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb to ask Ohio officials for more state resources such as testing sites and supplies. Both cities — two of Ohio's largest — are being slammed with COVID-19 patients, they said, and they need more resources and staff.

During a Jan. 12 briefing, Cincinnati Health Commissioner Dr. Melba Moore shared several sobering statistics for both Cincinnati and the region.

She said that the city of Cincinnati had 761 newly reported COVID-19 cases as of Jan. 12, a 49.8% increase over the previous day's 508 cases. There is a seven-day moving average of 248.6 new positive COVID-19 cases per 100,000, an increase from the previous 228.6 cases per 100,000.

There were 981 confirmed COVID-19 patients in regional hospitals as of Jan. 12, with 175 in intensive care units and 133 on ventilators, Moore said.

Moore stressed that children are being hospitalized with COVID-19 at an alarming rate. Since last week, there has been an 83% increase in hospitalizations for COVID-19 patients ages 0-17, which also is a 540% increase over the last month, she said.

Moore said that according to data, only 26% of Hamilton County residents ages 0-19 have completed their COVID vaccination series. COVID-19 vaccinations are available to people ages 5 and older, and boosters are available to those ages 16 and up. 

"Cincinnati, we can do better," Moore said, imploring parents and guardians to vaccinate their children.

Cincinnati has information about COVID-19 vaccination sites and testing locations on its health department website. Other regional resources include Hamilton County Public Health and The Health Collaborative.

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