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Another summer COVID-19 wave has hit San Diego hospitals, but this one is breaking differently

COVID-19-related hospitalizations are still rising in San Diego County, but this summer's wave is proving different from other surges. Most patients are coming in with less severe illness and fewer people are dying, according to officials from local hospital systems.

"It is across the board much less acute," Sharp HealthCare Chief Operating Officer Brett McClain said.

Right now, about 460 San Diego County residents are hospitalized with COVID-19, a fourfold increase since May. But the situation is significantly better than it was last summer and this past winter.

Sharp has about 160 COVID-19 patients, the most of any hospital system in the county. Yet, McClain said, there are far fewer being admitted to the intensive care unit or put on ventilators.

"The overall picture is a less-acute variant, thank goodness," McClain said. "That said, we are seeing a similar surge of a higher acute nature with those that are older and more frail."

It remains unclear if officials are seeing less severe illness because the BA.5 variant is milder or due to the "wall" of protection built up with vaccinations or previous infections — or a mix of both.

"We certainly have less patients with this surge that are requiring ventilation than ever before, and that’s great because our antiviral [treatments] are working," said UC San Diego Health's chief medical officer, Dr. Chris Longhurst.

Fewer deaths

Longhurst said he also saw some patients presenting with milder illness, and, according to data from UC San Diego, recent infections are not as deadly as before.

"What’s circulating now probably has a mortality rate of less than the flu," Longhurst said.

Recently, a Los Angeles County USC Medical Center official said just 10% of patients admitted with COVID-19 were being hospitalized because of illness caused by the virus. Longhurst said that was not the case in San Diego.

"Up to two-thirds of patients admitted to the hospital are being admitted for COVID, as opposed to with COVID," he said. "The LA County data seems a little bit off to us."

Many San Diegans hospitalized with COVID have underlying medical conditions that the virus makes worse, so it can be difficult to pinpoint what is driving the serious cases.

Scripps Health officials say their situation is similar to the other hospital systems. Scripps Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ghazala Sharieff said about 10% of hospitalizations were "incidental" case findings, meaning that people are testing positive while being admitted for something else.

Staffing worries

COVID-19 aside, officials at Sharp and Scripps are seeing unusually high volumes of non-COVID-related emergency room and urgent care visits. And the virus is hitting hospital staff hard. Sharp alone had 700 employees out with COVID-19 on Thursday.

"We have to replace those staff, right, with others to be able to take care of the patients," McClain said.

Sharieff is wondering whether staffing will again reach the point where surgeries and other procedures will have to be delayed.

"Are we going to get to that crossroads at some point where we have to start delaying surgeries again?" Sharieff said. "None of us wants to do that, right? We’re already seeing delayed care across the country — I’d hate to get to that point. So I think It’s time for us to take a pause. We all know what to do: just be extra careful."

Sharieff is also worried about San Diegans who are experiencing lingering effects from infections, typically referred to as "long COVID".

"I’ve heard so many people in the last couple of weeks say it’s just like flu," Sharieff said. "Flu doesn’t necessarily give you these long-term complications like COVID is doing."

Officials are continuing to recommend that people use the state's CA Notify phone system. It was pioneered in San Diego and can let people know if they have come in close contact with someone who has the virus.