Do the Omicron numbers mean what we think they mean?

By | January 16, 2022

Dhruv Khullar writes:

More than a hundred and fifty thousand Americans are currently hospitalized with the coronavirus—a higher number than at any other point in the pandemic. But that figure, too, is not quite what it seems. Many hospitalized Covid patients have no respiratory symptoms; they were admitted for other reasons—a heart attack, a broken hip, cancer surgery—and happened to test positive for the virus. There are no nationwide estimates of the proportion of hospitalized patients with “incidental covid,” but in New York State some forty per cent of hospitalized patients with Covid are thought to have been admitted for other reasons. The Los Angeles County Department of Health Services reported that incidental infections accounted for roughly two-thirds of covid admissions at its hospitals. (Pediatric covid hospitalizations have also reached record levels, probably because Omicron’s transmissibility means that many more kids are contracting the virus; there’s little evidence that the variant is causing more severe illness in them, though.)

Clarifying the distinction between a virus that drives illness and one that’s simply along for the ride is more than an academic exercise. If we tally asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic infections as Covid hospitalizations, we risk exaggerating the toll of the virus, with all the attendant social and economic ramifications. If we overstate the degree of incidental Covid, we risk promoting a misguided sense of security. Currently, the U.S. has no data-collection practices or unified framework for separating one type of hospitalization from another. [Continue reading…]

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