CHEYENNE (WNE) — Breakthrough COVID cases leading to hospitalization at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center currently outnumber the number of unvaccinated people who are hospitalized.
But experts say a couple things are going on. COVID-19 vaccinations have now been available for more than a year, and the effectiveness could have waned for some patients, depending on when they received their vaccination and whether they received a booster dose.
Also, the omicron variant is highly transmissible, leading to a very high number of positive cases statewide, but symptoms appear to be less severe than the delta variant.
“What we are seeing is that omicron is very transmissible,” Dr. Jeffrey Storey, assistant chief medical officer for Cheyenne Regional Medical Center, said Tuesday. “But it doesn’t look like the hospitalizations for omicron are going to be nearly as long.”
In late January, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began urging people to stay “up to date” with their COVID-19 vaccinations, as opposed to focusing on language like “fully vaccinated.” Storey explained that people who have received one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or two doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine are considered “up to date” only from two weeks after receipt of their final shot to six months after that shot. Following that, to be considered up to date, patients must have received a booster shot.
“We do only have three boosted patients” right now, Storey said, adding that the hospital does not collect data on when vaccinations were received.
“While we do have people who are vaccinated and who are boosted admitted, these are people who, I don’t even want to think what would have happened should they not have been vaccinated or boosted,” he said.
The delta variant has likely run its course, as Laramie County data suggests that between 90% and 92% of infections are omicron.
“With delta, we were seeing people come in with month-long stays to even longer than 12 weeks,” Storey said. “People would get ventilated on delta, and those timeframes were dramatically longer. People were ventilated for eight to 10 weeks before figuring out whether they were going to live or die.
“With omicron, we do see patients hospitalized, but it is a shorter hospitalization. Currently, we are lucky enough to have no one intubated at the moment. We have two ICU patients, but no one on the ventilator,” Storey said.
Kathy Emmons, executive director of the Cheyenne-Laramie County Health Department, said that similar to a flu vaccine, the effects of the COVID-19 vaccine will wane over time.
“What we are seeing is that people who got vaccinated a long time ago, or who have not gotten boosted, those are the people who are becoming positive,” Emmons said.
The CDC is also recommending that people who are highly immunocompromised and who received a booster five or more months ago get a fourth shot.
“That is for folks with a compromised immune system,” Emmons said. “The problem is that if you do have a compromised immune system, the vaccine may not have been as efficient in your system as in someone who has a healthy system that can fight infections and viruses better.”
While omicron does not seem as severe as delta, Emmons said the virus will continue to mutate until enough people are vaccinated. And with each new mutation comes new challenges, whether that is in its symptoms or in its transmissibility.
“Until the population is vaccinated at a high enough level, the virus will continue to mutate. The more people that are vaccinated, the less mutations will happen because there will be less to feed on,” she said.
Although hospital stays due to omicron appear to be shorter than previous variants, Storey said no one has identified why certain people are so affected by COVID-19 while others are asymptomatic.
“Why would a 29-year-old need to be hospitalized when a 65-year-old was asymptomatic? It doesn’t always make perfect sense,” Storey said. “We still have patients from age 29- 91 in our hospital, and we have had pediatric patients hospitalized, as well.”
Storey said that when people hear the omicron variant is less severe, they often let their guard down. But the same precautions apply as have since the beginning of the pandemic.
“Sharing drinks with friends, going out to bars, not masking at big events, things of that nature, that does put you at risk,” he said. “Being vaccinated helps.”
Masks, he said, keep respiratory droplets close to the wearer, and people who wear a mask protect others more than themselves.
“If we all did that for a little bit, this virus would have nowhere to go, and we would get to that stage where we were moving beyond the pandemic, looking at a post-COVID world, rather than a world that interminably contains COVID,” he said.