File photo of Hartford Hospital grounds Credit: Christine Stuart / CTNewsJunkie

The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in Connecticut continued to climb Wednesday and though they appeared likely to soon surpass the state’s highwater mark, health care officials said they were now better equipped to combat the virus.

During an afternoon press conference, Gov. Ned Lamont told reporters that another 19 COVID patients were reported hospitalized, bringing the statewide total to 1,939. That’s only 33 short of the record set during the worst of the pandemic on April 22, 2020. 

However, during a separate event Wednesday, Hartford HealthCare doctors said there were a number of mitigating factors which made the current surge in hospitalizations, driven by the highly infectious omicron variant, less serious than the one the state experienced nearly two years ago. 

For one thing, of the 535 patients hospitalized with COVID at Hartford HealthCare facilities, about 30% were incidental, or seeking treatment for some other ailment, Chief Clinical Officer Ajay Kumar said. 

“Many patients are seeking care for different reasons than the COVID in the acute setting so the numbers can be misleading at times,” Kumar said. 

That’s not to say that the COVID infections do not have a negative impact on both the outcomes of patients, who tend to experience more complications, and hospital staff, who must take additional precautions in order to provide care, Kumar said. But fewer COVID patients are requiring ICU beds or ventilation, he said. 

Dr. Ulysses Wu, Hartford HealthCare’s chief epidemiologist, said the incidental cases contributed to a “false elevation” of the hospitalization numbers. He attributed much of the asymptomatic cases to protection offered by vaccinations and booster shots. 

“Those patients are here for usually different reasons and to be here for severe COVID would put an additional strain,” Wu said. “So I’m just happy that our vaccinations and our boosters work and that these people are presenting asymptomatic at this point.”

As of Wednesday, the state Public Health Department said that more than 68% of Connecticut hospital patients with COVID were not fully vaccinated. 

During an afternoon Facebook Live event with U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, Connecticut Children’s Physician-in-Chief Juan Salazar encouraged parents to have their children vaccinated if eligible. Salazar said Connecticut Children’s Hospital had 17 kids hospitalized with the virus last week, the highest since the pandemic began. 

“Over 90% of those kids were unvaccinated,” Salazar said, noting that some were under 5 years old and not yet eligible. “[Getting vaccinated] prevents disease in children — it prevents hospitalization in children and certainly prevents death in children.”

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Dimitris Bertsimas told reporters on the Hartford HealthCare call that the vaccine and booster shots represented weapons against the virus that were not available last time hospitalizations surged this high. 

Screenshot of Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Dimitris Bertsimas

“We as a society are much better equipped to address a very serious health crisis and I would like to emphasize again how important it is for the population to be vaccinated and boosted,” Bertsimas said. “Unfortunately, I don’t believe we are out of the woods.”

Bertsimas, associate dean of business analytics at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, said the models he has developed suggest Connecticut is likely still three weeks away from the peak of its current omicron surge, dashing some hopes that the state was approaching a plateau of cases in the next few days.  

“To say that in 15 days — a few days from now we’ll have it plateau — our models do not expect that. They expect a further increase,” Bertsimas said. “Maybe in several weeks time as opposed to this week. Unfortunately, I’m expecting more cases.”

The governor, during an unrelated press conference, said the state’s infection rate dipped slightly Wednesday to around 21% after averaging more than 23% for the last week. Lamont said he hoped the state was approaching a “bend in the curve.” However, he said his administration had been in contact with the state’s hospitals on ways to conserve capacity. 

“A number of them are already limiting the non-emergency electives and what that does to free up beds for folks who are ill in a more critical way,” Lamont said. “So we still have a dimmer switch in terms of how we control the hospitalizations and in particular the ICUs.”