UCHealth Reports ‘Incidental’ COVID-19 Cases Now Make Up Majority of Hospitalized with Virus

UCHealth registered nurse and research coordinator Stacie Kenny prepares a shot to be administered to the first participant of UCHealth’s COVID-19 vaccine study being conducted in northern Colorado. Participants in the study will receive either a placebo vaccine or a vaccine developed by Oxford University and pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. Photo courtesy of UCHealth.

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UCHealth is seeing a shift in its patient population with the Omicron variant of COVID-19. Based on a recent chart review, a majority of the patients who were hospitalized with COVID-19 in mid-January were admitted for reasons other than virus-like heart attacks, strokes, injuries, and other illnesses.

Of the more than 350 patients positive for COVID-19 in UCHealth hospitals, about one-third were admitted primarily due to COVID-19 complications. The remaining two-thirds were incidental cases, which means they were admitted to the hospitals for other medical and were found to be positive upon routine hospital testing that occurs with all admissions.

This is a stark contrast from the patient population breakdown when delta was the dominant variant. At that time, a review found that more than 90 percent of the COVID-19-positive patients in UCHealth hospitals were there for COVID-19 treatment and complications, with very few incidental cases.

The new data reflects omicron’s high transmissibility; across Colorado, the positivity rate for COVID-19 is about 30%. While omicron appears to be less severe than delta, the change in hospitalization data still brings challenges.

Patients who are admitted with COVID-19, even if incidental, are still considered potentially infectious, so they are placed in specific units and require individuals who go into their rooms to wear specific types of personal protective equipment (PPE), like gowns, gloves, masks, etc. to help prevent spread.

The one thing that hasn’t changed is the proportion of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 in intensive care units who are vaccinated vs. unvaccinated against COVID-19. Last week, UCHealth was caring for 75 ventilated patients for COVID in its ICUs, and more than 90 percent of those patients were unvaccinated.

“Patients who are unvaccinated still make up the vast majority of those in the hospital or in the ICUs who need treatment for COVID-19,” said Dr. Michelle Barron, UCHealth’s senior medical director of infection prevention and control and a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. “Breakthrough infections are occurring, but a lot of those breakthrough infections are not as severe because the vaccine is protecting those individuals. The purpose of the vaccines is to keep you from getting severe illness and dying from COVID-19, and they are very effective at this.”

UCHealth continues to urge Coloradans to get vaccinated and boosted against COVID-19 if eligible and to continue to wear masks, physically distance, avoid large crowds and wash hands frequently.

“While Omicron is less severe than other variants, the risk is not zero,” Barron said. “Even if you have mild symptoms, if you are unvaccinated, you remain at high risk for developing complications related to the virus.”

More on UCHealth’s findings can be found at uchealth.org.