PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Unvaccinated Rhode Islanders are still far more likely than their vaccinated neighbors to end up in the hospital after contracting coronavirus, but state data shows hospitalizations are rising even among those who have been inoculated.
The R.I. Department of Health provided new data this week showing nearly 32% of the 245 people hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Monday had received at least two doses of Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or one dose of Johnson & Johnson. Booster shot data was not immediately available.
Looked at another way, nearly two of every three COVID-19 patients were unvaccinated. Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said that fact is especially noteworthy in the context of Rhode Island’s high vaccination rate.
“Keep in mind that there are many more vaccinated adults in Rhode Island than unvaccinated adults in Rhode Island,” Wendelken said. “The population of unvaccinated adults is much smaller, and yet the majority of our hospitalizations are unvaccinated adults.”
A Target 12 analysis of Health Department data compared to vaccine demographics shows the hospitalization rate among vaccinated Rhode Islanders as of Monday totaled about 10 per 100,000 people, while the rate among unvaccinated Rhode Islanders was about 86 per 100,000 people.
Rhode Island officials do not provide a regular breakdown of daily hospitalizations based on vaccination status, but monthly breakthrough data posted on the Health Department’s website shows the number of vaccinated individuals hospitalized with COVID-19 has been climbing relatively steadily in recent months. And the number has increased more than sixfold since the summer.
In June, the state reported only 18 “breakthrough hospitalizations,” representing anyone identified with a breakthrough case who was admitted to an inpatient facility for at least one night. In November, the most recently available data, the number had increased to about 188 people. The state also reported 28 deaths from COVID breakthrough infections in November, double the number the prior month.
The recent rise in hospitalizations – both among the vaccinated and unvaccinated – has come in the wake of a sharp spike of new coronavirus infections that is nearing the level seen during this time last year, the worst period of the pandemic so far. Gov. Dan McKee has scheduled a news conference for Wednesday to announce “a comprehensive set of actions” to address the spike in cases.
Medical professionals outside government have been raising the alarm, saying the state’s hospitals are severely understaffed, causing concern about whether they could handle the same volume of hospitalizations seen last year. As of Monday, Rhode Island was averaging about 229 daily COVID hospitalizations compared to 491 on the same day last year. However, hospitalizations are currently trending upward, while they were trending downward at the same point a year ago.
“We have not only a surge but a critical shortage in critical nursing and nursing in general,” said Dr. Mitchell Levy, director of critical care medicine at Lifespan, the state’s largest hospital system.
Levy, who spoke about the challenges facing hospitals during last week’s edition of Newsmakers, estimated his hospital has seen a 31% reduction in nursing staff. More broadly, he said, roughly nine of the 10 COVID-19 patients in his intensive care unit as of Friday were unvaccinated – which he said has become a frustrating trend for him and his colleagues.
“There is something that is well known in the field called ‘compassion fatigue,’ and to be honest it is difficult to care for people who had the opportunity to be vaccinated and chose not to be vaccinated,” he said, while adding quickly that the dynamic does not stop them from providing the “highest quality care.”
“We take care of people who attempt suicide, who drink too much, who overdose on illegal drugs – we’re used to caring for people who are their own victims,” he said. “It’s just right now – seeing another surge that is primarily the mostly unvaccinated – it’s very challenging for all of us.”
The concern was echoed Tuesday during a news conference held by the Rhode Island Medical Society, where president Dr. Elizabeth Lange told reporters Rhode Island is at a “critical medical crossroads.”
Lange noted that while about 73.2% of Rhode Island’s population has been fully vaccinated, only about 30% of eligible Rhode Islanders have received a booster dose of the vaccine so far.
“We must vaccinate,” Lange said.
Tim White, Ted Nesi and Alexandra Leslie contributed to this report.