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In 2020, the holiday season preceded the worst COVID-19 surge the U.S. has faced since the pandemic began.
Last year, the increase in daily virus cases began to accelerate in early December before peaking at more than 250,000 every day in early January.
Now, Covid cases are rising once again in the U.S., with a seven-day rolling average of 95,000, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
This had led some experts to fear another winter surge is just around the corner.
Dr Richard Zane, the chief innovation officer at University of Colorado Health (UC Health), told DailyMail.com that because of the different circumstances of this year’s wave when compared to last, hospitals may struggle to deal with the surge even more this time around.
Some Colorado hospitals have already reached a breaking point, according to UC Health’s Dr Richard Zane, and if things get worse the upcoming holiday surge could overwhelm the state’s healthcare system
One Chicago-base epidemiologist believes his state may have already put the worst of the pandemic behind them. Due to the high vaccination rate, combined with the amount of people with natural immunity, and access to medical resources, he believes Chicago should be ok going forward. He still urges residents of the city to protect themselves by getting vaccinated, though
Zane told DailyMail.com that, unlike last year, the Covid ward at his hospital is having to share resources with other wings of the hospital in 2021.
While cases in the Denver area, where UC Health operates more than a dozen facilities, are not likely to reach the same heights this year as last year, dealing with those cases may be tougher for hospitals.
In 2020, treating Covid patients was an all hands-on-deck approach.
A majority of non-Covid medical treatments were canceled or rescheduled, and a vast majority of the staff, beds and equipment was dedicated to fighting the virus.
With the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines, many have felt comfortable returning to the hospital for other treatments, and other parts of hospitals have begun to open again – siphoning off available resources.
Colorado is already experiencing an uptick of cases in mid-to-late November.
‘The surge is already harder for Colorado hospitals than it was last year,’ Zane said.
Cases in the state have reached 3,000 per day on average, well above the 1,700 per day recorded at the peak of summer 2021 surge fueled by the Delta variant.
Around Thanksgiving time last year, the state was at the peak of its winter Covid surge, recording over 5,500 new cases per day.
‘I can’t emphasize this enough: Hospitals in Colorado have never been this crowded or this busy in the history of the pandemic,’ he said.
While Colorado as a whole has a high vaccination rate, with more than 70 percent of residents having received at least one vaccine dose, Zane says some specific communities around the state still have extremely low rates.
Counties on the eastern half of the state, and especially those that border Kansas and Nebraska, have low vaccination rates in particular.
Because UC Health hospitals take overflow patients from elsewhere, Zane says he is seeing many unvaccinated people from specific communities across the state with low vaccination rates show up at his hospital.
‘There is a solid correlation between vaccination and the overwhelming of hospitals,’ he said.
‘There is no ambiguity. A majority of patients in the hospital are unvaccinated.’
He urges people to get vaccinated if they have not already, and to get their booster shots if they are eligible.
‘The one thing that can prevent a post holiday surge is people getting boosters and time is running out,’ Zane said.
If unvaccinated people get their shots, transmission of the virus will be reduced, and Zane believes the situation in the state can be controlled.
He fears the worst, though, and that if people don’t get their shot in the coming weeks, the Colorado health care system will be overwhelmed.
‘[It will be] different than anything anyone has experienced,’ he said, gravely looking into the future.
Hospital systems nationwide are preparing for potential surges, and many others are also feeling the early affects of the holiday season.
‘It would be hard to imagine a situation where the fact that a lot of people have been getting together for several days at a time would not lead to a surge in cases,’ Dr Nasia Safdar, medical director of infection control at the University of Wisconsin Health system (UW Health), told DailyMail.com.
‘Every other large holiday gathering has has led to this.’
Cases in Wisconsin are trending upwards, with the state eclipsing 3,500 new cases per day on average earlier this week.
Around this time last year, Wisconsin was reaching its peak of Covid cases, recording around 5,800 new cases every day.
Only around 65 percent of Wisconsin residents have received at least one vaccine shot, slightly behind the national pace of 70 percent.
Safdar, who is based in Madison, says that there are some pockets of the state that have lower vaccine rates than all the rest, leaving them especially vulnerable to case surges.
While cases are climbing, Safdar believes this year will not be as bad as last year for her system, due to the prevalence of the vaccines.
‘I think the thing that could blunt [a hospital surge] would be the vaccination status in areas,’ she said.
‘Even if people get breakthrough infections, they aren’t of [the same] severity or complexity most of the time and [won’t] require medical attention.’
Still, there are a few concerns facing the hospital ahead of what could be another surge of Covid patients.
Staffing issues are near universal at hospitals nationwide – even before the pandemic – and Sadfar points out that they are not issues that can be solved in the short term.
The hospital also takes transfer patients from elsewhere, as it has the ability to administer monoclonal antibody treatments and life support systems like extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) that many less resourced hospitals in the state do not.
This means that a surge outside of Madison could still quickly become a problem for the hospital.
Not everyone is as fearful of the future, though.
Chicago, like New York and other densely populated cities around the world, experienced its worst COVID-19 surge in Spring of 2020, rather than winter later in the year.
While case rates were higher in early November last year, instead of late December like the rest of the country, Chicago hospitals were more prepared to deal with the fall surge last year.
Dr Michael Lin, an epidemiologist at Rush University hospital system in Chicago, believes that the worst of the pandemic may be behind us, and that this winter will have a more muted Covid situation.
‘I think that we are seeing the benefits of vaccination in our area,’ Lin told DailyMail.com.
‘I think our city has a relatively high vaccination rate. And I think that coupled with the [previously] infected, my city has made our hospitalization rates even during the Delta wave fairly manageable.
‘….I think we’ve probably gotten through the worst of it now.’
Cook County, which includes Chicago, is currently averaging around 1,300 new Covid cases every day.
Lin still thinks it is too early for people to let their guards down, though, and urges people to take preventative steps like getting vaccinated and receiving their boosters when eligible.
‘I can just say that a lot the efforts [health officials are undergoing] are really more on the prevention side,’ he said.
‘So really focusing on getting the word out about vaccines for people who are unvaccinated, providing opportunities for our patients and people who want to get the vaccine.
‘…boosters, I think are [also] a part of the strategy to reduce the winter infections.
‘So I do encourage the public to follow the advice about getting boosters, we do think that it’ll make a difference in preventing illness this winter.’