Nearly half of Mass. COVID-19 hospitalizations are for illnesses other than virus

The state has a new method of reporting the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations, now differentiating between primary and incidental cases – or patients admitted for coronavirus and those who come in for other illnesses but end up testing positive.

That new data, released by the Department of Public Health for the first time Thursday, shows on Jan. 18, 49 percent of the state’s 3,187 hospitalized patients with COVID were admitted for illnesses other than the virus.

Dr. Shira Doron, the hospital epidemiologist for Tufts Medical Center, helped develop the metrics for the state’s new reporting system.

Hospitals measure primary COVID cases as those that require the steroid treatment dexamethasone, which the majority of patients with severe coronavirus require.

Doron told Boston 25 News distinguishing between primary and incidental COVID hospitalizations is important to provide transparency to the public, to determine the severity of the omicron variant, and to better understand vaccine efficacy.

“I think it’s really important to understand vaccine effectiveness because we are calling these patients COVID hospitalizations,” Doron said. “At Tufts Medical Center, half of them are vaccinated, and you don’t want to be calling them a vaccine breakthrough hospitalization when they aren’t.”

While new COVID cases across the state are finally declining amid the omicron surge, the health care system is still in a dire hospital bed crunch.

Doron said the state’s new reporting system will help forecast hospital capacity.

“When the wave is behind us and COVID cases are low, all those patients admitted for reasons other than COVID, those types of cases aren’t going away,” Doron said. “So, if 50 percent are not due to COVID, we have to know that we’re not getting that capacity back when COVID cases go down.”

Doron says accurate COVID hospitalization numbers are essential because public health leaders and policymakers use the data to make decisions involving vaccination for kids, the need for boosters and implementing mitigation strategies, including mask mandates and school policies to curb the spread.

But Doron said it is important the new data is not interpreted as diminishing the plight of those hospitalized for other illnesses.

“Patients who are incidentally positive or are in the hospital for other reasons but happen to have COVID, they matter, obviously,” Doron said. “They could get sicker, they require a private room when we’re bursting at the seams. They require [personal protective equipment]. It takes longer to see them. Their family can’t visit them. We can’t get them out to a rehab or nursing home. They’re important.”