Yale doc: About 90 percent of COVID patients treated by YNHH not vaccinated

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NEW HAVEN — The number of coronavirus cases in the Yale New Haven Health system has remained roughly steady in recent weeks, but likely will rise as colder weather and the holiday season bring people into closer contact, officials said Thursday.

Thomas Balcezak, chief clinical officer with the health system, and Chris O’Connor, president of Yale New Haven Health, gave an update on the course of the pandemic and life at the hospital, responding to questions from the press as part of a briefing.

O’Connor said there were 72 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 across the system’s hospitals as of Thursday, including 32 in New Haven and 13 in Bridgeport. Of those, 16 patients were in intensive care and nine required assistance from a ventilator, he said.

During the pandemic as a whole, the system admitted 15,354 patients with coronavirus; 14,039 of them have been discharged, he said.

The number of coronavirus patients in the system had been roughly steady in recent weeks, Balcezak said, ranging from 50 to 70 people. Approximately 90 percent of the COVID-19 patients treated by the hospital are unvaccinated, he said.

“We are seeing a very stubborn set of numbers that are not going down with regard to our inpatient cases,” said Balcezak.

Balcezak said among causes prompting a rise in cases across the state is the waning efficacy of vaccination over time, which prompts the need for booster shots.

As of Wednesday, the state reported a positivity rate of 3.38 percent, bringing the seven-day average to 2.9 percent, up from 2.4 percent one week ago.

But, in terms of preventing hospitalization, the importance of getting people vaccinated was paramount, Balcezak said.

“We really still need to focus on those who have not yet been vaccinated, because that is still the best way of preventing illness, and is absolutely the best way of preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death,” said Balcezak. “Now, it’s not a panacea — it doesn’t completely prevent it — but it certainly reduces the risk, absolutely substantially.”

The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were demonstrated in initial studies to be about 95 percent effective against the coronavirus, according to Yale New Haven Health. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was found to be about 72 percent effective.

Regarding booster shots, he said we, collectively, are in a “bit of a tricky time,” as the Food and Drug Administration has not yet authorized booster shots for all individuals.

The hospital system is providing booster shots to people over age 65, or those 18 and over in high-risk occupations, he said. People still are protected from severe disease without a booster, Balcezak noted.

Balcezak said it was fine that some people likely had received booster shots before officially being eligible — the vaccine is safe, effective and available, he noted — but suggested it would be better to continue to follow federal guidance in opening the opportunity to all people.

Gov. Ned Lamont urged people 18 and older to get a booster shot shot if they were vaccinated at least six months ago on Wednesday, although the FDA had not officially signed off on that idea.

Approximately 18 percent of state residents have received a booster shot, Balcezak said, as compared to 82 percent that had received initial vaccination. He suggested confusion over eligibility likely was prompting the disparity.

“I don’t understand why we are the most vaccinated state in the nation, and yet we’re slow to get boosted. I think that will change over time,” Balcezak said. “Maybe we’re rule-followers here in the Nutmeg State, and we’re waiting for the regulatory agencies to say it’s OK. Once they do say it’s OK, I think you’ll see a lot more people go out and get it.”

Balcezak encouraged parents to have children ages 6 to 11 vaccinated.

On the whole, Balcezak said he expected the number of coronavirus cases in the state to rise in the near future, as people travel for the holiday season, bringing some people who have not been vaccinated into the state and prompting people to gather inside for celebration.

“All of those things — the falling humidity levels, the temperature falling, the possibility of gathering, and then, gathering (with) people who are more likely unvaccinated — portend an increase in cases in the coming weeks,” said Balcezak.

Both Balcezak and O’Connor said the hospital system, beyond the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, was unusually busy at this time.

Surgeons had reported that patients were presenting in later stages of illness than usual, Balcezak said. To some extent, this likely is attributable to delayed demand during the pandemic, he said, but the change seems outsized for that to be the sole cause.

O’Connor noted the hospital system had more than 3,500 vacant positions — an unprecedented rate of openings — increasing the workload on staffers.

“Our staff is tired, and to be candid, exhausted. And therefore that creates pressures, whereas two years ago, maybe they’d be willing to take on extra shifts and so forth — it’s much more difficult to do it after going through two years of the pandemic experience and the volumes that we’ve experienced,” said O’Connor. “I think there are a lot of factors out there that are contributing, and at the end of the day, we’ve really never been busier. ... Our commitment continues to be to care for every patient, and that’s putting a strain on the system.”