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Louisville doctor concerned omicron COVID-19 variant could strain nearly-full ICUs

An empty hospital bed.
Creative Commons/Pixabay
The Leapfrog Group has ranked Kentucky 35th in the nation in hospital safety.

Data collected by the U.S. Department for Health and Human Services (HHS) show that at the start of the month, ICU beds in Louisville and Southern Indiana hospitals were at or near capacity. 

A Louisville doctor is concerned that the new COVID-19 omicron variant, confirmed Friday in Kentucky, could strain that further. He urged continued vaccinations, boosters and other precautions. 

The stats, posted this weekend on the HHS website, look at four hospitals in Louisville and two in Southern Indiana. As of Dec. 2, just over 95% of staffed adult ICU beds in these facilities were occupied. 

Around 18% of those beds were occupied by patients with suspected or confirmed COVID-19.

Dr. Jon Klein, a nephrologist at University of Louisville Health, said he saw a sharp increase  in people hospitalized with COVID-19 around two weeks ago, though health officials have attributed the recent spike to the delta variant. 

And he said while it’s not time to panic, there is cause for concern that the new variant could increase hospital stays. 

“I think whether it was omicron or delta, if you head into a COVID surge with ICU occupancy already very high, I think you have to be concerned,” Klein said. 

Klein added that while initial findings from the first cases in South Africa show milder symptoms and fewer hospital stays, researchers “don’t know what that means in the context of other countries.”

More testing is needed to determine whether omicron causes more severe illness, but Klein said even if it’s milder, it still shows signs of being three to seven times more transmissible than the highly-contagious delta variant that hit the state in summer. 

That could mean a bigger pool of overall affected people, and in turn greater numbers of those who do get seriously ill. 

Gov. Andy Beshear announced this weekend that the new variant had been found in Campbell, Fayette, Jefferson and Kenton counties, either through clinical tests or wastewater surveillance. 

During a news conference Saturday, Dr. Steven Stack, commissioner for the Kentucky Department for Public Health, said the new variant could account for half or more of all COVID-19 cases in the commonwealth within weeks. 

Klein urged residents to keep taking steps health officials have repeated during the year. 

“I think getting vaccinated, getting boosted if you’re already vaccinated and it's more than six months since your second injection,” he said. “I don’t even really like to call it boosting anymore. I think a complete series is at least three shots.”

Klein also encouraged social distancing, wearing a good mask such as an N-95 or KN-95 – especially if indoors with others whose vaccination status is unknown – and practicing good hand hygiene. 

Omicron was first reported to the World Health Organization in late November, when it was detected in South Africa. California was the first U.S. state to see the new strain Dec. 1 and as of Friday, more than three quarters of U.S. states had confirmed cases. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported last weekthat omicron has the potential for increased transmission and reduction in antibody treatment success. 

The CDC reported, however, that current vaccines are expected to prevent severe illness, hospitalizations and death.

Aprile Rickert is LPM's Southern Indiana reporter. Email Aprile at arickert@lpm.org.

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