Experts warn of COVID ‘winter wave’ as CT positivity rate highest since January

Gov. Ned Lamont

Gov. Ned Lamont

Arnold Gold / Hearst Connecticut Media

The coronavirus outlook for the coming winter in Connecticut appears bleak with cases and hospitalizations already on the rise, and though death rates have not yet increased as precipitously as other measures, experts say they will.

The state’s data on Tuesday showed the daily positivity rate reached 5.96 percent and there were 11 more hospitalizations, increasing the total to 365.

“What makes this so worrisome is that we're seeing this bump before the Thanksgiving holiday would be impactful, and before omicron becomes impactful in the U.S.,” said Rick Martinello, director of infection prevention at Yale New Haven Health. “The timing of this is really bad.”

The number of coronavirus hospitalizations might hit 600 before the winter is over, according to Pedro Mendes, director of the University of Connecticut’s Center for Cell Analysis and Modeling.

If so, that would be the most COVID-related hospitalizations in Connecticut since February.

“The model is predicting a winter wave coming in,” Mendes said. “It actually looks very similar to what we had this time last year, though the prediction is that it will be of smaller magnitude.”

One caveat, Mendes said, is the omicron variant, which is too new for his models to reflect.

“We just don't know enough about its properties to be able to include it in the model,” Mendes said. “I hope that in two to three weeks, we will know a lot more about its effect.”

According to state data, the last time the daily positivity rate surpassed 6 percent was Jan. 24.

“I spent a lot of time saying we were the most vaccinated, least infected state in the country. And we were for many, many months. In the last few weeks, we have spiked up and we are 6 percent today, which is the highest we’ve been in many, many months,” Gov. Ned Lamont said Tuesday.

This follows a weekend in which the positivity rate was 5.25 percent, which was the highest since late March. Hospitalizations also jumped a net of 54 patients over the weekend for a total of 354, which was the highest census since September.

“At worst, we’re going to be at two-thirds of our peak from last year,” said Ulysses Wu, head of infectious disease at Hartford HealthCare.

Deaths from the coronavirus have not followed suit along with cases and hospitalizations, for two reasons, experts said.

First, the rate of deaths is a lagging indicator. Those patients currently hospitalized with COVID have not yet reached the peak of severity.

“It's not unusual for those who are dying to be hospitalized for weeks, even more than a month before they pass away,” Martinello said.

The high rate of vaccination in the state has also prevented many of those who have been vaccinated from experiencing the worst symptoms.

“The death rate is lower than last year because of vaccines,” Wu said. “It’s still a little bit too elevated from where I would like it to be.”

There is an average of about four COVID-related deaths per day, according to state data, the majority of which are among unvaccinated people.

The difference this year, Wu said, is that the relationship between cases and deaths won’t be as in sync. In previous COVID waves, the curve in the number of cases corresponded to the number of deaths. But vaccinations will help those two curves to disengage, allowing a higher percentage of COVID-positive patients to survive their infections.

“This year, with the cases increasing, the curves are going to separate,” Wu said.

While officials have acknowledged that COVID-19 is circulating more substantially in Connecticut and across the region, they have repeated that widespread vaccination should prevent a spike as drastic as last fall and winter.

As of Monday, nearly 72 percent of all Connecticut residents were fully vaccinated, and of those, 23.2 percent had received a booster dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s data.

Given the increase in COVID-19 cases, state and health officials have been urging everyone to get vaccinated and then get a booster shot.

“It really is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Lamont said. “And increasingly, you got your shot seven, eight, nine months ago, maybe a little bit older, you’ve got to get the booster.”