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Louisville doctor says rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations may be warning sign of coming spike

Face masks are required at the Norton Healthcare Sports & Learning Center in Louisville's Russell neighborhood.
Face masks are required at the Norton Healthcare Sports & Learning Center in Louisville's Russell neighborhood.

COVID-19 hospitalizations are on the rise again in Jefferson County. University of Louisville Health Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jason Smith said about 57 people are hospitalized with the disease at U of L Health — twice as many as the week prior.

“My worry is, I start to see a doubling in the number of hospitalizations over a seven-to-ten day period — that’s what we saw just before we went into a huge peak previously,” Smith said during a press conference Thursday.

Like most of the state, Jefferson County is in the “green” or low-risk category for COVID spread, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC’s risk indicator, which updates every Thursday evening, is based on the number of new infections reported and the availability of hospital beds over the previous seven days.

The map will update tonight at 8 p.m., but Smith said he’s not convinced the data gives an accurate picture of the virus’ presence, because many people are using at-home tests that aren’t reported to health officials.

“There’s a lot more testing being done that we’re not capturing,” Smith said.

Earlier in the pandemic, when reporting was more robust, Smith said a rise in cases alerted the community to an uptick in transmission.

The Louisville Metro Department of Health and Wellness shut down its COVID-19 data tracker last month. And daily COVID-19 briefings with Gov. Andy Beshear and his cabinet are a thing of the past.

Now, Smith worries, a bump in hospitalizations may be the only reliable warning sign that risk is growing.

“Unfortunately we’re seeing an increase just before the holidays,” Smith said. “We did this last year, so let’s try not to repeat that.”

While the current strains of COVID-19 are presenting with overall milder symptoms than previous variants, Smith said they’re also “more unpredictable” in terms of how they impact individual patients.

“It’s a lot harder for us to identify who might be at risk and who might not be at risk for hospitalization,” he said.

While U of L Health is seeing COVID-19 hospitalizations double, Norton Healthcare says their system has seen the number of COVID-19 patients hold steady over the past several weeks, at about 45 patients.

Both hospitals have far fewer COVID-19 patients than they did during previous peaks in the pandemic. Smith said during the omicron peak last winter, U of L Health had about 240 COVID-19 patients hospitalized.

The increase in new COVID-19 hospitalizations is coinciding with widespread outbreaks of other respiratory illnesses — especially influenza and RSV. Flu and RSV outbreaks have forced at least 26 Kentucky school districts to temporarily shut down in-person learning this month.

RSV and flu are already driving hospitalizations of young children. Last week, a state official told WFPL News that nearly all the pediatric ICU beds in the state were full.

Norton Children’s currently has 33 pediatric patients hospitalized with RSV. Ten of them are in critical care. Norton Children’s spokesperson Joe Hall said that puts the hospital “near capacity” in terms of how many ICU beds it has.

“But we have the ability to bring our critical care skills — including critical care nurses and providers — to patients outside of that unit and into other parts of the hospital,” he said.

Norton Children’s has also opened extra areas of the hospital to meet the demand.

Smith urged Louisville residents to get their flu shot and updated COVID-19 boosters as soon as possible. When sick or feeling unwell, Smith said people should stay home and wear a mask around others.

Jess Clark is LPMs Education and Learning Reporter. Email Jess at jclark@lpm.org.