More than 17 months into the coronavirus pandemic, hospitals are still swamped and a new study provides a stark picture of why.
The newer, more contagious Delta variant doubles the risk of hospitalization compared with its alpha predecessor, according to a large national study in England published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal.
Researchers from Public Health England and Cambridge University found that within 14 days of infection, the risk of emergency care or hospital admission with the Delta variant was also one-and-a-half times greater compared with the original variant.
After collecting data on more than 43,000 COVID-19 patients in England, including about 34,000 infected with alpha and 9,000 with the more contagious Delta variant, researchers found that patients with the Delta variant have about two times the risk of hospital admission compared with patients with the alpha variant. The majority of cases—74 percent— included in the analysis were unvaccinated. Just 1.8 percent were fully vaccinated.
Joshua Sharfstein, Vice Dean for Public Health Practice and Community Engagement at Johns Hopkins’ Bloomberg School of Public Health, told The Daily Beast that the study seemed to explain the surging hospitalizations seen around the United States since the Delta variant made its way west from India.
“It is definitely suggestive that Delta may cause more serious illness,” Sharfstein said. “We’re seeing record numbers of hospitalizations and deaths in parts of the United States as Delta has come to bear. There were previous times where there was a lot of transmission in the United States and we didn’t see this level of hospitalizations in certain areas.”
“We should behave like Delta is more severe,” Sharfstein said. “I think we need to take it very seriously.”
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the seven-day average for daily new cases is roughly 142,000, rocketing more than 100 percent in just over a month ago. Hospitalizations for new COVID patients are at their highest levels nationally since the start of the pandemic for people under 50. Hawaii, Kentucky, Oregon, Washington, and Wyoming are experiencing their highest surges since the start of the pandemic, the agency noted.
The study focused on hospital admissions between March 29 and May 23, 2021, is one of the largest to analyze the hospitalization risk for the Delta variant. Researchers continue to monitor how COVID-19 is evolving as new variants emerge and cases of the virus overwhelm hospitals.
The researchers note that the findings could have been influenced by possible changes over time in hospital admission policy that might have been caused by hospital burden or increased use of at-home pulse oximeter monitoring.
The nine-page study also cautioned that “suboptimal information” about the reason for a hospital visit had prevented “conclusive attribution of attendance or admission to COVID-19.”
While the study considered factors like age, gender, ethnicity and deprivation, it was limited in its accounting for co-morbidities—known contributors to hospitalization risk—due to a lack of available data.
A lead author of the study, Gavin Dabrera, who is also a consultant epidemiologist at England’s National Infection Service, said the study confirmed previous findings that “people infected with Delta are significantly more likely to require hospitalization than those with Alpha.”
A preliminary study from Scotland previously suggested a doubled risk of hospitalization with the Delta variant compared with the alpha variant. It was based on patients’ initial PCR tests.
The new study collected far more data, including patients’ vaccination status, emergency care attendance, hospital admission, and other demographic information. It seems to back up the Scottish study’s findings, researchers said, and suggest that outbreaks of the Delta variant, particularly among unvaccinated people, could weigh more heavily on health-care services than previously seen with the alpha variant.
Michael Osterholm, director at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, told The Daily Beast that a more comprehensive study determining severity would look not only at infections that yielded hospitalizations and emergency care but also examine a cohort of milder ones. He said, however, that he believes the newer Delta variant has caused kids to get more sick.
“We’re seeing many, many more children that are going right to ventilators.” Osterholm said. “These kids are looking much more like the adults did, particularly the older population did, six months ago.”