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Ohio Hospitals Filling Up With 30-To-50 Year Old Unvaccinated COVID Patients

Gov. Mike DeWine gives his daily coronavirus briefing on April 1, 2020.
Office of Gov. Mike DeWine
Gov. Mike DeWine gives his daily coronavirus briefing on April 1, 2020

The number of Ohioans hospitalized with COVID-19 is climbing to levels the state hasn’t seen since the deadly surge over the 2020-2021 winter, and doctors are particularly concerned about a spike in patients under the age of 50.

In the past 24 hours, the state reported 459 new COVID-19 hospitalizations– the highest daily increase since January, Gov. Mike DeWine said in a Tuesday press conference. And, the number of people under the age of 50 needing hospitalization has reached a historic point, he said.

“During the week of Sept. 5, we had 398 hospital admissions for those under 50,” DeWine said. “That was our highest week during the pandemic … for that age group.”

While in the early days of the pandemic, hospitals were primarily treating older individuals with complications from COVID-19, that’s no longer the case, DeWine said.

The reasons for this are two-fold. The highly contagious delta variant appears to make people sicker than the original strains of the virus, and those who are unvaccinated are most at risk, he said.

While vaccination rates in Ohio’s senior population are high, that’s not the case for the younger age groups, DeWine said. Just 35 percent of Ohioans under the age of 39 are vaccinated, DeWine said.

Across the state, 97 percent of people hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, health officials said.

"Don't become a statistic when there is a simple, safe and effective alternative," said Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, director of the Ohio Department of Health. "Go out today and get vaccinated."

Akron Health Official Gets Emotional While Explaining The Ravages Of COVID-19

The delta variant behaves differently than original strains, health officials said. It appears to rapidly make patients ill and cause more severe outcomes, especially in those who are not vaccinated, said Terri Alexander of Summa Health in Akron.

“It was easy to see that we had started coming into the delta variant, or a different variant, just by the way the patients were behaving. We knew right away we were dealing with something different. They weren’t responding the way they used to,” Alexander said. “With this newer variant, they’re so sick, and they’re sick longer, and they’re younger.”

Alexander got emotional as she described what COVID-19 patients can experience when hospitalized.

“[You’re] 49 years old, and you’re fit and healthy, and you come in and you’re surprised you’re on oxygen, and then you’re surprised you’re on that much oxygen, and now we have to start talking to you about – ‘what’s our plan B? Do you want to be on the ventilator?’” she said. “Those are tough choices for someone in their thirties to make.”

Hospital floors and intensive care units are filling up much quicker than they did in the previous surges due to the variant, said Dr. Suzanne Bennett of the University of Cincinnati Health.

Staffing Shortages Across The State

That problem is exacerbated by statewide nursing shortages, she said. At Fulton County Health Center near Toledo, hospitalist Dr. Alan Rivera said their nursing staff has been cut in half.

“We have nurses leaving the field, retiring early, finding jobs elsewhere because of the long hours,” Rivera said. “The emotional strain it is putting on them … is making them want to get out of the medical field.”

Summa Health in Akron is experiencing these concerning shortages as well, Alexander said, and officials are offering incentives for recruitment and asking staff to take on extra shifts and hours.

These staffing challenges coupled with the rise in COVID-19 patients have resulted in hospitals becoming overwhelmed and, in many cases, not able to accept new patients, Bennett at UC Health added. Bennett coordinates extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), a treatment highly requested for many people very sick with the virus.

“Just this week alone, I have received approximately 10 to 15 calls from doctors in our community, our state, and the surrounding tristate area requesting ECMO for their dying patients,” she said. “This time, the majority of them are in 20s to 40s … often otherwise healthy. These patients healthy this time around, and the vast majority are unvaccinated. However, we don’t have enough space, and we don’t have the additional nurses this time.”

While Summa Health still has capacity for patients, Alexander said surge plans may have to be implemented if the infection rates and vaccination numbers don’t eventually improve.

“Hopefully, we’ll never get to a point where we truly have to say - ‘there’s nothing else we can do,’” Alexander said. “I hope everybody vaccinates.”

To encourage more vaccinations, DeWine did not rule out issuing more statewide monetary incentives but said the majority of programs are happening now at the local level.

Anna joined ideastream in 2019, where she reports on health news for WCPN and WVIZ in Cleveland. She has also served as an associate producer for NewsDepth. Before that, Anna was a 2019 Carnegie-Knight News21 fellow at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism.