A newly released study has found that nearly half of those hospitalized for COVID-19 in 2021 may have been admitted for another reason entirely, or were mild or asymptomatic for the respiratory virus.
Conducted by a team of researchers from Harvard Medical School, Tufts Medical Center, and the Veterans Affairs Healthcare System, the yet-to-be peer-reviewed analysis examined electronic records for nearly 50,000 COVID hospital admissions at more than 100 VA hospitals across the country.
According to The Atlantic, researchers “checked to see whether each patient required supplemental oxygen or had a blood oxygen level below 94 percent” and if “either of these conditions was met, the authors classified that patient as having moderate to severe disease; otherwise, the case was considered mild or asymptomatic.”
“The study found that from March 2020 through early January 2021—before vaccination was widespread, and before the Delta variant had arrived—the proportion of patients with mild or asymptomatic disease was 36 percent,” the report read. “From mid-January through the end of June 2021, however, that number rose to 48 percent. In other words, the study suggests that roughly half of all the hospitalized patients showing up on COVID-data dashboards in 2021 may have been admitted for another reason entirely, or had only a mild presentation of disease.”
The report later notes the increase was even greater for vaccinated hospital patients, with 57 percent experiencing mild or asymptomatic disease. Moreover, the study found unvaccinated patients have also been registering with less severe symptoms, on average, than earlier in the outbreak, with 45 percent of cases being mild or asymptomatic since January 21.
The study’s findings raise serious concerns over whether similar trends are playing out in hospitals across the country. According to Dr. Shira Doron, one of the study’s co-authors, refining the definition of hospitalizations is critical when discussing COVID-related public policy measures that affect entities such as schools and businesses.
“As we look to shift from cases to hospitalizations as a metric to drive policy and assess level of risk to a community or state or country, we should refine the definition of hospitalization,” she said. “Those patients who are there with rather than from COVID don’t belong in the metric.”