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Why some doctors are focusing more on hospitalization rates and other data than case numbers during omicron

Some doctors and experts believe that with this new variant, we need to look at the data a different way.

MINNEAPOLIS — There's no way around it, we are in a tough spot right now with COVID-19 and this omicron variant.

But there's a growing push to look at the numbers differently.

Doctors and experts say simply counting cases isn't the best way to track this virus anymore. 

From the very beginning, counting cases was the way to go with COVID. It's how we all made sense, or tried to make sense out of what was going on.

There was a sense of comfort in those basic numbers, the higher they were, the more COVID we thought there was, and vice versa, but...

"It paints a picture, but probably not the whole picture," said Dr. Deepti Pandita, who is the Chief Health Information Officer at Hennepin Healthcare.

In the beginning, she says case numbers were pretty accurate, there were only a few places you could get tested.

However, with more options, like at-home tests, she says a lot of cases never get counted.

"You have to also factor in the availability of tests,” Dr. Pandita says. “That can also have an effect on the numbers.”

At some points during the pandemic, you could get tested anywhere you'd like, at other points, tests were hard to find.

Plus, Dr. Pandita says the virus we're dealing with right now is not the same virus we were dealing with nearly two years ago.

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"We know that Omicron is more spreadable, spreads more rapidly, but not as virulent in the sense that it doesn't cause as severe disease. So, yes, you’re not comparing apples to apples,” Dr. Pandita says.

So, if not case numbers, is there a better way to track this virus?

"Hospitalizations are a good marker for us to follow."

Dr. Mark Sannes is an infectious disease specialist at HealthPartners.

He feels hospitalization rates, positivity rates and the number of ICU beds being used may be a better way to monitor the omicron spike.

"There isn't sort of a gray area. If someone needs oxygen and needs to be hospitalized, that's an easier way to count than going okay, how many people have COVID in the community with this variation and the testing that we've seen. If you're sick enough to require hospitalization, that's an easier metric to count over time and it's more of a constant as it hasn't changed much throughout the pandemic and I think that is our best indicator right now for the burden of infection,” Dr. Sannes explains.

So, looking at those numbers, where are we at right now?

"The positivity rate is off the chart. In terms of hospitalizations, I think we are seeing numbers in our hospitals that would suggest we're seeing more people, with a little milder illness over these last seven to ten days. Across HealthPartners we're probably up fifty patients in our medical surgical units with COVID, but the numbers in our ICU beds have not gone up appreciably.”

Dr. Sannes says more ICU beds could fill up before this latest wave runs its course.

He says it's still important for people to take this virus seriously, to maintain social distance for the time being, and if you do feel sick, or had an exposure, it's still important to get tested.

"I don't think we can assume yet that this is going to be a milder surge yet when it comes to hospitalizations and intensive care unit stays for people who get infected. We’ll get through this. We have another month to go probably, but we’ll get through this,” Dr. Sannes says.

Doctors say the latest models show we could reach the peak within seven to ten days, but some models show we might not reach it until early February.

Good news is after the peak we could see a quick drop in cases.

That's what some other countries have seen, but doctors say there's always a chance we could see something different here in the U.S.

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