A New COVID-19 Surge May Hit Cleveland Area Soon
COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are rising again in Ohio, and another surge is expected in the Cleveland area as local health officials race to get as many people vaccinated as possible.
Health officials are also concerned that a major surge in cases in Michigan may be moving across the Ohio border.
Currently, COVID-19 case numbers are rising steadily in Cuyahoga County. An average of 200 new cases are being reported each day, up from 150 per day recently, said Health Commissioner Terry Allan.
The testing positivity rate – which measures the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests at county hospitals each week – is back up to five percent after dropping to four at the beginning of March, he said.
“We’re watching closely to see if this is just a small increase or a surge,” Allan said.
Hospitalizations have also increased since the beginning of the month, with county hospitals at 78 percent capacity, up from just over 70 percent in the middle of February.
There has also been an increase in ventilator use, Allan added.
However, Cleveland Clinic currently has sufficient bed capacity, and emergency departments are not overwhelmed, said Dr. Frank Esper, pediatric infectious disease specialist at Cleveland Clinic.
MetroHealth recently closed its COVID-specific intensive care unit due to a decline in patients, hospital officials said.
This new wave may look different than the one over the winter that resulted in record-high rates and deaths, Dr. Esper said.
“We do not expect that this fourth wave will be nearly as bad as the previous three,” Esper said.
“We won’t see the hospitalizations, at least we don’t expect to ... but it might be a little more prolonged, so it might be lower but more longer than these big spikes that we had," he said.
The previous surges occurred at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, then rose again in July, and again in October and lasting through the winter months, Esper said.
After some Ohio health orders were relaxed over the past month, an uptick in cases was to be expected, Esper added.
Multiple factors are driving the new surge in cases, such as people being tired of following COVID-19 precautions and letting their guard down, Allan said.
“Are we going to see a holiday bump from Passover and Easter, for instance, with people gathering, and other springtime events like Opening Day?” he said.
A major concern is the more contagious strains, such as B.1.1.7 variant first discovered in the U.K., spreading throughout Northeast Ohio, Allan said.
National data shows the B.1.1.7 variant is accounting for more than 20 percent of new cases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We went from one percent in February up to 27 percent, so that’s a good bellwether for us,” Allan said. “Here in Ohio, we’re seeing similar trends as expected with increasing percentages of the variants’ presence.”
Several Northeast Ohio labs, including the Cleveland Clinic, are monitoring B.1.1.7 and B.1.351, the strain originating from South Africa. The B.1.1.7 variant accounted for about 20 percent of samples in a recent week, Esper from Cleveland Clinic said.
So far, it appears all three authorized vaccines – the shots from Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson – can also protect against the variants, officials add.
Variant strains are impacting a striking new surge across the border in Michigan, where case counts have reached levels seen over the winter months. There is concern among some health officials that Ohio may be on its way to seeing these numbers, Allan said.
“The question is, are we several weeks behind them, or is fate in our hands as to whether we continue vaccinating this high clip? We don’t know the answer to that right now,” Allan said.
To avoid a similar surge, officials said it is a battle of variants versus vaccines. The question remains whether Ohio is vaccinating people at high enough rates to stay on top of these variants and rising case numbers, Allan said.
So far, about 18 percent of Cuyahoga County residents are fully vaccinated, and more than 35 percent have received at least one dose of the two-dose vaccines, according to state data.
Much of the county’s older population is vaccinated, while the younger population has a long way to go because they just recently became eligible.
Children under age 16 are not yet approved for vaccines, so there could be a rise in pediatric cases in this new surge, which is concerning because younger people tend to spread the virus at higher rates, Esper said.
“What’s most important is that we don’t see the rises in cases that overwhelm our system, so that’s why I think a lot of us feel a lot better about what future outbreaks are going to look like with this virus,” he said.
Health officials urge everyone to continue to wear masks, practice social distancing, and use other common-sense health precautions to get through this next surge.