Omicron to bring record level of hospitalizations to NC, expert says

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The current surge of COVID-19 cases fueled by the omicron variant could last several more weeks and lead to significant added strain on hospitals and other areas of society, an expert at North Carolina State University said on Friday.

Dr. Julie Swann, who leads a team of researchers and has advised the CDC on the trajectory of the pandemic during the omicron surge, said hospitalizations due to COVID-19 likely will reach record levels in North Carolina.

“And, that’s particularly troublesome because there are not as many hospital staff as there were a year-and-a-half ago. And, hospital staff are also hit by COVID themselves,” she said. “When hospitals are full and when there are not enough staff then care for all patients could suffer to some extent.”

Swann, who is an expert on health systems, said the latest surge of cases is likely to last into mid-February but could be impacted by behavioral changes such as more people getting booster shots and utilizing masks effectively.

“What we’re seeing in North Carolina is similar to what we expected. Case are going up quite quickly,” she said. “We still have room for this surge to get worse in North Carolina. I am expecting that cases are going to continue to increase for a little longer as people are entering schools or workplaces.”

The state Dept. of Health and Human Services reported 28,474 new COVID-19 cases Friday, a new record.

Swann noted that symptoms generally are milder with the omicron variant, particularly for those who are fully vaccinated and had their booster shots. She said members of her own household recently tested positive but all are vaccinated and had the booster shot if eligible.

She pointed out the large number of people testing positive on a daily basis shows how contagious the variant is, also impacting people who are at higher risk for more severe outcomes.

“We could be looking at several more weeks of this and in particular since hospitalizations lag behind cases, I’m particularly looking at that metric,” she said. “It could also be a little bit different in Raleigh than it is in some of the rural areas. Most of the models project that the surge will continue through the end of January and perhaps into the middle or end of February as well, depending on the location.”

NCDHHS reported Friday that 3,474 people were hospitalized due to COVID-19. That number peaked at 3,992 last January.

“But, this is hitting everywhere across the nation almost at the same time. And so, the absenteeism is really driving a lot of disruptions across many different industries,” Swann said. “It may feel like it’s inevitable that you may get a version of the virus at some point even if you take precautions like wearing a mask and testing. And, that may be possible. The important thing is to have as much protection as you can before you get the virus.”

Gov. Roy Cooper (D) addressed the surge Friday saying his administration is remaining in close contact with healthcare facilities as they grapple with the situation.

“We want to get this virus to the endemic stage. We understand this virus is going to be with us for a long time but that we need to make sure we can lead normal lives,” he said.

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