Jan 19, 2022 - Health

Omicron hits American hospitals disproportionately hard

Data: Our World in Data; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

America is seeing more COVID hospitalizations than other wealthy countries during the Omicron surge, according to Our World in Data.

Why it matters: Vaccines keep the vast majority of COVID cases out of the hospital, but vaccination rates are also lower in the U.S. than these other countries.

  • U.S. hospitals — particularly the health care workers that staff them — are struggling to keep up with the workload.

The big picture: The Omicron variant is less likely to lead to hospitalization than other variants, data suggests, but it's so transmissible that hospitalizations are spiking anyways.

  • In the U.S., there are more people hospitalized with COVID than at any other point during the pandemic.
  • Some of these hospitalizations are people who require care for other conditions, but also have tested positive for COVID. But health care workers and experts say that regardless of why a COVID patient is in the hospital, they still add strain to the system.
  • At least some other countries' hospitalization counts also appear to include incidental cases, per news reports.

By the numbers: Of all the countries included in this analysis, the U.S. has the lowest proportion of its population that is fully vaccinated and also the lowest rate of booster shots administered, per Our World in Data.

  • Although existing coronavirus vaccines don't work very well against Omicron infection, particularly without a booster shot, they are still effective at preventing hospitalization and death. Booster shots further enhance that level of protection.
  • Omicron also hit the U.S. while the country was experiencing a large number of daily Delta cases, as Scripps Research executive vice president Eric Topol points out on Twitter.

Zoom in: "Overall, a smaller percentage of reported cases were hospitalized compared to the delta wave (about 2% versus about 5%), but there were more total hospitalizations due to significantly greater case numbers," a report by New York City's health department concluded last week.

  • And while only around half the proportion of hospitalized patients have required intensive care during the Omicron wave relative to the peak of last winter's wave, "the volume of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has surpassed what was seen last winter and the number in the intensive care unit (ICU) is approaching last winter's peak."

Go deeper: The end of the Omicron wave is in sight

Go deeper