COVID surge sends more York County residents to the hospital

Matt Enright
York Dispatch

Hospitalizations, which had lagged behind an uptick in cases, are now on the rise in York County as health officials grapple with more transmissible variants of coronavirus.

And the nation has a new high-profile COVID patient: President Joe Biden.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden has begun taking Paxlovid, an antiviral drug designed to reduce the severity of the disease. He was isolating at the White House and “continuing to carry out all of his duties fully,” she said amid what were described as "very mild symptoms."

In York County, state Department of Health data showed 16 people hospitalized with the disease. Last week, there had been nine reported.

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A WellSpan spokesman said the hospital system implemented processes to manage a potential surge in COVID cases, with plans to direct more resources where they may be needed in the event of a significant increase in demand for hospitalization.

"While we do not anticipate a surge in hospitalizations that would rise to the level of previous surges of the pandemic, each of our hospitals are prepared to flex capacities and staffing as needed," WellSpan spokesman Ryan Coyle said Thursday.

York County reported 814 new cases and six new deaths over the past week, bringing its totals to 127,686 and 1,532 since the pandemic began. Despite the growing case counts, state health officials continue to report data on a weekly — not daily — basis.

"The department continues to focus on trends to gain an accurate picture of what is occurring across the state," a state Department of Health spokesperson said Thursday, via email. "Over the past two weeks, the commonwealth has experienced a slight increase in reported cases and we continue to monitor activity to see if this will be a trend or not."

According to the New York Times' tracker, the 14-day rolling daily average of new cases have increased by 41% compared to the previous period. Deaths, meanwhile, increased 200%.

For comparison, the daily average at this point in the pandemic is roughly on par with what it was in February, as the initial omicron surge was waning, or August 2021, when the delta surge was growing.

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Health experts continue to urge vaccination and other mitigation strategies, such as masking in enclosed spaces, to alleviate the spread of COVID.

"I know people are getting tired of being told to get booster after booster," Dr. Raghav Tirupathi, a WellSpan infectious disease physician, said earlier this week. "But I think that's the best way to fend off serious disease, hospitalization and death, especially the vulnerable folks among us." 

Biden, 79, was fully vaccinated and had received two booster shots, according to The Associated Press.

President Joe Biden speaks to members of the media after exiting Air Force One, Wednesday, July 20, 2022, at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. Biden is returning from a trip to Somerset, Mass., where he spoke about climate change. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Up to this point, Biden’s ability to avoid the virus seemed to defy the odds, even with the testing procedures in place for those expected to be in close contact with him. Prior waves of the virus swept through Washington’s political class, infecting Vice President Kamala Harris, Cabinet members, White House staffers and lawmakers. Biden has increasingly stepped up his travel schedule and resumed holding large indoor events where not everyone is tested.

A White House official said Harris tested negative for COVID-19. She was last with the president on Tuesday and spoke with him on the phone Thursday morning. Harris planned to remain masked, on the guidance of the White House medical team.

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she hoped that Biden's positive test for the virus would cause more Americans to get vaccinated and boosted because "none of us is immune from it, including the president of the United States, and we really have to be careful.”

Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell on Twitter wished the president "a speedy recovery.”

Top White House officials in recent months have been matter-of-fact about the likelihood of the president getting COVID, a measure of how engrained the virus has become in society — and of its diminished threat for those who are up to date on their vaccinations and with access to treatments.

When administered within five days of symptoms appearing, Paxlovid, produced by drugmaker Pfizer, has been proven to bring about a 90% reduction in hospitalizations and deaths among patients most likely to get severe disease.

In an April 30 speech to more than 2,600 attendees at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, Biden acknowledged the risks of attending large events, but said it was worthwhile to attend.

“I know there are questions about whether we should gather here tonight because of COVID,” he said. “Well, we’re here to show the country that we’re getting through this pandemic.”

Biden is far from the first world leader — and not the first U.S. president — to get the coronavirus, which has infected British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and more than a dozen other leaders and high-ranking officials globally.

After more than two years and over a million deaths in the U.S., the virus is still killing an average of 353 people a day in the U.S., according to the CDC. The unvaccinated are at far greater risk, more than two times more likely to test positive and nine times more likely to die from the virus than those who have received at least a primary dose of the vaccines, according to the public health agency.

The highly transmissible omicron variant is the dominant strain in the U.S., but scientists say it poses a lower risk for severe illness to those who are up to date on their vaccinations. Omicron's BA.5 sub-strain, believed to be even more contagious, now makes up more than 65% of U.S. cases.

“There’s a lot of infections across America,” White House COVID-19 coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha said May 18, blaming the highly-transmissible variants as well as the relaxing mitigation measures like mask requirements.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

— Reach Matt Enright via email at menright@yorkdispatch.com or via Twitter at @Matthew_Enright.