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About 90% of COVID-19 patients in some of Pa.’s hardest-hit hospitals are unvaccinated

“Every day, there are patients dying in our hospitals who really don’t need to die,” said one south-central Pennsylvania hospital leader.

A public service advertisement from the Philadelphia health department featuring Gritty urges people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.
A public service advertisement from the Philadelphia health department featuring Gritty urges people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Pennsylvania hospitals say the vast majority of hospitalized coronavirus patients are still unvaccinated — as high as 90% at some hospitals — even as more vaccinated people are also getting infected amid the omicron-delta surge.

Over the last year, the rate of hospitalization and death among unvaccinated people in the United States has been much higher than for those fully vaccinated.

But now as more immunized people get breakthrough cases of the omicron variant of the virus, the protection provided by the vaccine has been proven again and again, doctors say. While the shots do not always prevent mild or asymptomatic infections, the risk of not being vaccinated is on grim display, they say, pointing to their overflowing wards and strained intensive care units.

“Every day, there are patients dying in our hospitals who really don’t need to die,” said Gerald Maloney, chief medical officer for hospital services at Geisinger Health. “But by the time they come to the hospital, it’s too late for a vaccine, and that’s the tragedy.”

» READ MORE: Nervous about getting the COVID-19 vaccine? Don’t believe these myths.

Across the Geisinger Health system, which operates nine hospitals in northeastern and central Pennsylvania, 90% of the hospitals’ COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated — and 98% are either unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated.

At WellSpan Health in south-central Pennsylvania, about 90% of COVID-19 patients in their eight hospitals are unvaccinated, and 95% of those on ventilators are unvaccinated. The number was also 90% at Guthrie’s hospitals in northeast Pennsylvania and southeast New York. At Lehigh Valley Health Network, 75% to 85% are unvaccinated, with the proportion higher of those who are in the ICU.

Those health systems are among those experiencing the worst strain in the state. In Philadelphia, Health Commissioner Cheryl Bettigole also said this week that those hospitalized in the city are usually unvaccinated or haven’t had booster shots. And Montgomery County officials at a news briefing asked residents to get vaccinated to avoid being hospitalized and “protect our hospitals.”

Doctors expect the fast rise in the number of people who need hospital care — more than 6,400 coronavirus patients were hospitalized in Pennsylvania on Friday, up from 4,700 two weeks earlier — to continue for at least two to three weeks.

“Many of those people will be seriously ill. That will disproportionately be people who have chosen not to get vaccinated,” said Donald Yealy, chief medical officer at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “So, again, the message: Please get vaccinated.”

Who can get a COVID-19 vaccine

  • Anyone 5 or older is eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. 
  • Vaccines are free and available at clinics, pharmacies, and doctor's offices.
  • Everyone 12 and older who received Pfizer should get a booster shot five months after their second dose. Children 12 and up are now eligible in addition to adults.
  • Moderna recipients 18 and older should get a booster shot six months after their second dose — but the CDC is poised to change its recommendation in the coming days to allow boosters after five months.
  • Johnson & Johnson recipients 18 and older should get a booster two months after their initial vaccination. 
  • If you have questions about getting the vaccine, contact your doctor or your local health department.

The statistics provided by the hospitals also provide some of the first data on breakthrough hospitalizations in Pennsylvania since omicron began spreading more widely (though many hospitalized now may still be infected with the delta variant). In the month preceding Dec. 6, the last time Pennsylvania updated its data and before omicron was dominant, about 78% of hospitalizations were among people who were not fully vaccinated.

Now, although vaccinated people are contracting omicron, meaning the variant can evade vaccine protection to a degree, the vaccine remains effective in preventing severe illness and death — vaccinated peoples’ cases are more likely to be mild.

“If you haven’t been vaccinated, this looks very much like the previous versions of the virus,” Yealy said of the illness caused by the omicron variant. “You don’t get the benefit of the milder version as much if you haven’t been vaccinated.”

» READ MORE: Full ICUs, 100 dying a day: The winter coronavirus surge is straining Pa.’s health-care system

At Penn State Health, interim hospital medicine chief Fahad Khalid walked through the intensive care unit at the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center on Thursday. Inside were 33 COVID-19 patients. All were unvaccinated.

“We continue to struggle,” Khalid said at a virtual briefing.

The vaccinated people who do end up hospitalized with the virus usually have significant underlying conditions, are very immunocompromised, or elderly, hospital leaders say.

In a new report this week, the CDC said that out of more than 1.2 million vaccinated Americans, 0.015% had been hospitalized with the virus and 0.003% had died from it, making those outcomes rare for vaccinated people. All who had severe cases had at least one underlying condition, or “risk factors,” and 78% of the relatively small number who died had at least four risk factors.

» READ MORE: Full list of places in the Philly region where you need to show proof of vaccination (so far)

Just under 65% of Pennsylvania’s total population is considered fully vaccinated — two doses of Moderna or Pfizer or one dose of Johnson & Johnson — and 33% of those also have a booster dose. A booster dose is necessary to have the best protection, particularly against the omicron variant, doctors say. Of adults, 75% are fully vaccinated and 91% have at least one dose.

Still, every day, thousands of people are getting COVID-19 shots, and some of them are getting their very first.

At WellSpan Health, doctors have been urging people to get the shots “ceaselessly,” said Anthony Aquilina, chief physician executive. He made another plea at a briefing on Thursday.

“The science is there,” he said. “All you have to do is come and visit our ICUs to see how true that is.”