Dr. David Priest. QCity Metro screenshot

Novant Health has seen a “stark increase” in the number of people being admitted to its statewide network of hospitals because of the resurgent Covid-19 pandemic.

Covid-related admissions are running 12 times higher than the rate seen six or seven months ago, Dr. David Priest, Novant’s chief safety, quality and epidemiology officer, told reporters on Tuesday.

Moreover, he said, the average age of patients being admitted has fallen from about 61 at the height of the pandemic to current averages between 44 and 49 years old.

Like doctors everywhere who are dealing with rising Covid-19 numbers, Dr. Priest blames the Delta variant of the coronavirus, which he described as “highly contagious.”

“Early on in the pandemic, the typical Covid patient might infect two or three other individuals around them,” he said. “But with the Delta variant, they’re likely to infect five to nine individuals around them.”

Dr. Priest said about 91% of the Covid-19 patients admitted to Novant hospitals are unvaccinated. The vaccinated patients who are admitted, he said, tend to be older with weakened immune systems or other underlying medical conditions. 

Despite the increase in hospitalizations, — Novant’s intensive care units are running at about 97% capacity for adults — Dr. Priest said the hospital system has systems in place to manage the surge.

“It’s important for our communities to know that we can care for them if they need it, and they should seek care when they need it,” he told reporters during a virtual briefing.

As recently as June, only about 2% of people tested for Covid-19 at Novant facilities were found to have the respiratory infection, which is caused by the coronavirus. Now, Novant’s positivity rates are significantly higher — 15% in Charlotte, 17% in Winston-Salem, 21% in Brunswick and 29.6% in Wilmington, he said.

Now that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a third shot for people with compromised immune systems, Novant is working to implement systems to administer third doses. Until those systems are in place, the health care system is discouraging people seeking third doses from walking into clinics.

Dr. Priest said Novant could begin administering third doses within days. He said he also anticipates that the FDA will soon approve third doses for the general public.

“It’s an interesting observation in human behavior,” he said. “We have some individuals in our communities who adamantly don’t want a single dose and others who adamantly want the third dose. That just speaks to the polarization we have seen during the entire pandemic. It’s unfortunate, but that’s kinda where we are right now.”

Dr. Priest said people seeking third shots probably won’t be required to show documents or prove medical need.

When asked about the need for masking, Dr. Priest said face coverings are but one of several tools needed to stem the pandemic, which has killed at least 13,895 people in North Carolina. He said the public also should remember to wash their hands frequently and practice social distancing.

As for travel, Dr. Priest said it boils down to individual circumstances.

“If you’re someone who’s older and has other health problems, I think it’s best to postpone travel right now,” he said. “If you’re younger and you’ve been vaccinated and you’re able to mask and you’re going somewhere where you’re going to be outside a lot, that changes the equation.”

He added: “I would encourage people to err on the side of caution for the next month or two as we see where this Delta wave…how it plays out and what the ramifications are going to be.”

Founder and publisher of Qcitymetro, Glenn has worked at newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Wall Street Journal and The Charlotte Observer.

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