A dramatic decline in COVID-19 cases in Wichita and across the nation has many physician leaders feeling optimistic, but no one is quite ready to signal the pandemic is over.
The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reported this month that COVID cases were down more than 40% over a recent seven-day average. In Sedgwick County, COVID cases peaked around Jan. 11 when 1,772 people tested positive. On Feb. 22, only 97 new cases were reported, lowering the rolling 14-day average of positive tests to just 5.7%, down from a high of more than 23% in January.
Those numbers have Sedgwick County public health officer Garold Minns, MD, agreeing it might be OK to loosen restrictions, but with the caveat that people should be vigilant and take safety precautions as conditions warrant.
“We shouldn’t pretend the virus is gone. Optimism is fine, but we shouldn’t pretend we have seen the last of COVID,” he said. “I’m not sure what the new normal will look like.”
Even with new COVID cases declining, some 85,000 people with the virus remain hospitalized nationwide, although that number – and the number of COVID patients in the ICUs – has fallen by more than 30% the last few weeks, according to data tracked by the New York Times.
Wichita hospitals have reported a significant decline in COVID patients, down from 294 on Jan. 24 to 98 on Feb. 21. More than 80% of hospitalized COVID patients in Wichita are unvaccinated.
Still, hospital census in Wichita remains high, and staffing continues to be a challenge. The pandemic ushered in patients with higher complexities of care at a time when hospitals were feeling the strain of the global nursing shortage.
“Right now, things appear to be headed in the right direction … (but) it is too early to categorically claim we are out of the woods,” said Sam Antonios, MD, chief clinical officer for Ascension Via Christi Health. “Even though the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 has decreased, our hospital volumes remain high with patients needing other types of care. At the same time, there is a nationwide labor shortage, which if not addressed will continue to make staffing a challenge for health care providers.”
Around 2,100 deaths are reported daily in the U.S. despite a decrease of more than 10% since the start of the month, officials said. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there have been more than 78 million COVID cases, and about 940,000 deaths reported in the United States alone, the CDC reported. Sedgwick County has recorded about 1,000 deaths since the pandemic began in early 2020.
So, while cases are declining today in this latest surge, many public health and physician leaders are guarded in their predictions for the future, already aware of the latest information on various omicron strains. These include the BA.2 omicron subvariant, which the World Health Organization calls a “variant of concern,” accounting for about 21% of sequenced global cases today.
“In the U.S., BA.2 is about 8% of our cases right now,” said Andrea Garcia, AMA director of Science, Medicine and Public Health, in a Feb. 2 COVID-19 update. “While BA.2 does not appear to cause more severe disease and our vaccines appear to be effective, BA.2 does show signs of spreading more easily, which really could translate into that slowing down of the trend we’re seeing with cases declining.”
Public health experts say they are hopeful that COVID continues to decline and that the country is shifting from a pandemic to an endemic disease that is more predictable and manageable.
“We are at a stage where we will have to live with ongoing COVID cases, but hopefully no large surges,” Minns said. “When physicians see respiratory illnesses, COVID will have to be on the list of possible causes in addition to influenza, RSV, etc.”
And physicians should continue to support one another by working together and encouraging each other and the entire medical community through grace and kindness, Antonios said.
“I am immensely proud of our entire medical community and extremely grateful for everyone’s contributions during the pandemic,” he said. “Please know, things will get better and if we all work together, we can come out the other side even stronger and more resilient than before.”