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UT researchers warn COVID hospitalizations will surge beyond previous high

Dr. Joseph Varon, right, talks with a patient inside the Coronavirus Unit at United Memorial Medical Center, Monday, July 6, 2020, in Houston.
David J. Phillip
Associated Press
Dr. Joseph Varon talks with a patient inside the coronavirus unit at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston in 2020.

In the next few weeks, Texas’ health care system could be facing the largest surge in coronavirus patients since the onset of the pandemic. According to UT Austin's COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, hospitalizations across the U.S. will peak far above the previous high by the end of January.

Total hospitalizations in the U.S. this week surpassed last January's peak to reach nearly 146,000. Coronavirus patients in Texas have surged above 11,000 patients, accounting for roughly one-sixth of all hospitalizations in the state.

Anass Bouchnita, a postdoctoral researcher with the consortium, said hospitalizations in Texas will likely keep pace with national trends.

“We are in the middle of this tsunami of cases that keep rising day after day with new records set every week,” he said.

Seven-day averages for new cases have shattered previous records this month. The U.S. is averaging roughly 700,000 new cases a day. Texas is reporting more than 40,000 new cases daily. State health officials on Wednesday confirmed 61,113 new infections, Texas’ highest daily case count ever.

Bouchnita and fellow researchers based their latest projections on what’s currently known about the omicron variant's transmissibility, severity of illness and the U.S. population's overall immunity from prior infections and vaccinations.

The team’s best-case scenario projects the surge will result in about half as many deaths and slightly more hospitalizations in the U.S. than the peak last January.

"We will exceed the prior level of hospitalizations by 20% on average," Bouchnita said of the most optimistic projection. In Texas, that rate of increase means hospitals would be treating nearly 17,000 people for COVID-19 by the end of the month.

“This could represent a threat to the health care system and we know that some places do not have the capacity to deal with surges like that,” he said.

According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, coronavirus patients account for more than 15% of all hospitalizations in nine of Texas’ 22 trauma service areas. The El Paso area is currently most affected, with roughly 1 in 4 beds filled with COVID-19 patients.

UT Austin’s worst-case scenario projects slightly more deaths and about three times as many hospital admissions in the U.S. than a year ago. However, the consortium is projecting a lower rate of fatalities overall for the current surge, due to better treatments available and evidence that the omicron variant is generally less severe than previous strains, said Bouchnita.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its data available on the omicron variant characteristics, which prompted the UT researchers to push back their initial prediction that the surge in omicron hospitalizations would peak by mid-January.

“It’s really hard to discern whether this reduced severity is due to omicron being less severe itself,” said Bouchnita, “because it does not replicate in the lungs as fast as [the] delta [variant] or whether it’s due to existing protection from prior immunity from vaccinations and also prior exposure to other variants.”

UT’s current modeling predicts the wave of coronavirus hospitalizations will peak in the US and Texas within the next two weeks.

Copyright 2022 The Texas Newsroom.

Joseph Leahy anchors morning newscasts for NPR's statewide public radio collaborative, Texas Newsroom. He began his career in broadcast journalism as a reporter for St. Louis Public Radio in 2011. The following year, he helped launch Delaware's first NPR station, WDDE, as an afternoon newscaster and host. Leahy returned to St. Louis in 2013 to anchor local newscasts during All Things Considered and produce news on local and regional issues. In 2016, he took on a similar role as the local Morning Edition newscaster at KUT in Austin, before moving over to the Texas Newsroom.
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