The case numbers on the dashboard this week speak for themselves. We are in the midst of a substantial omicron driven surge in cases. This is true throughout Massachusetts, the US, and really, globally.
Case numbers are important but the most important metric we have to keep our eye on is hospitalizations. If case numbers were at an all time high and hospitalizations were not, we would be having a very different conversation. Unfortunately, we are not. I've included some additional visuals this week from COVID Act Now on cases, hospitalizations, and patients in intensive care (ICU) since March 2020. We are at an all time high for cases and hospitalizations, and we're close to an all time high for ICU patients.
This is already having real effects on our health care in Massachusetts. Baystate Medical Center has postponed all routine medical care until after at least February 14th, 2022 in order to care for COVID-19 patients. They have a record number of patients hospitalized and report that 70% of them are unvaccinated. Patients are also largely under 40 years old, which is a far younger profile for severe disease than we've seen before. Some patients reporting to the emergency department wait in stretchers in the hallway until a room opens. Figuring out how to increase capacity and serve all sick patients has no easy solution. Many proposed solutions, like setting up field or tent hospitals, won't work because "the issue with COVID patients is that they are really quite sick." (That's a direct quote from the President and CEO of Baystate Health, Dr. Mark Keroack).
I know for some of you, this information is scary and you're already being as careful as you can be about COVID-19. For others, perhaps the situation sounds overblown, and like a scare tactic to convince you to wear a mask or get a vaccine. Here's the simple truth: it's just what is this week. We all need to know what we're asking of our fellow people. This surge will not be forever - we probably have something in the range of 3 - 5 more incredibly difficult weeks in front of us (that's an estimate - epidemiologists do not know when the surge will end). Every decision we make today means something for our health care workers and the strain on the system. Every decision we make today means something to our fellow people who experience trauma or emergencies in the next month. Every decision we make today means something to our fellow people who need routine care like mammograms and colonoscopies. You don't need to act in the extreme, on either end - wear a well-fitting, high-quality mask, get vaccinated and boosted, and interact thoughtfully in our community, particularly in public locations where others may not be able to wear a mask or around others who are high risk or immunocompromised. More than ever, this is an "in it together" situation. We are in a crisis and we need a few weeks of crisis-level care. I've focused on the healthcare system for obvious reasons, but we have to flatten the surge to continue operating all aspects of our society: to keep our grocery stores, pharmacies, schools, workplaces (and the list goes on!) staffed and open.
What do we actually do to get through the next 3-5 weeks? If this advice looks familiar, it's because it is. Flattening the omicron surge requires extra vigilance, but nothing new:
1) Wear a well fitting N95, KN95, or KF94 mask. Cotton masks and surgical masks do not provide enough protection. (See the visual on the dashboard this week. Contact the Easthampton Department of Health if you need a high-quality mask.)
2) Understand that the data being reported is an underestimate. There is a large amount of virus circulating in our community.
3) Avoid group gatherings, particularly without face masks and among people with unknown vaccine status.
4) Testing is limited: rely on symptoms. If you have symptoms, regardless of rapid test results, stay home until symptoms resolve. If you have symptoms and you're waiting for the results of a PCR test, stay home. Symptoms = stay home. Assume that you might have COVID-19 until you're sure that you don't (based on the results of a PCR test).
5) Get vaccinated. Get boosted.
A final note on progress in the US towards a vaccine for children under five: Moderna has reported that they will likely be ready to submit data on vaccine efficacy and safety for children 6 months to 4 years old to the FDA in March 2022, with emergency use starting in April 2022. The two-dose Pfizer vaccine, as a reminder, did not provide enough of a response in children 6 months to 4 years and did not qualify for emergency use at the end of last year. They are currently testing a third dose, and expect results to be ready around May 2022. In short, a vaccine for children under 5 is coming but is not immediately ready.
Hang in there. I know you're probably some combination of exhausted and angry and sad (at least, I am). Let's each do all we can to flatten the surge, one decision at a time, thinking about our loved ones, our community, and our health care providers. One decision at a time. Every single decision counts.
Megan W. Harvey, PhD, MS