A patient receives the COVID-19 vaccine.
“My No. 1 advice is to get the vaccine,” Liam Sullivan, DO, said. “There is no single thing that is going to protect you more from COVID-19 than the vaccine.” (Chris Clark | Spectrum Health Beat)

The rapid rise in COVID-19 cases, fueled by the delta variant, leaves medical professionals bracing for what the virus will bring in the coming weeks.

“We are sure we are going to see more hospitalizations,” said Liam Sullivan, DO, a Spectrum Health infectious disease specialist. “The question is, will it level off? Will it peak? Will it be a steep or slow rise in cases?

“We are getting ready for the worst and hoping for the best.”

In the past month, COVID-19 cases surged in West Michigan.

In July, the number of hospitalized Spectrum Health patients with the virus hovered in the 20s.

By Aug. 25, 2021, that number grew to 112.

The statistics behind the COVID-19 patients showed the value of getting the vaccine, he added.

  • Of the 112 patients hospitalized, 92 are unvaccinated and 20 are vaccinated
  • Of 31 patients in the intensive care unit, 25 are unvaccinated and 6 are vaccinated.
  • Of 20 patients on ventilators, 16 are unvaccinated and 4 are vaccinated.
  • Of the 212 patients who have died since vaccines became available, 195 were unvaccinated and 17 were fully vaccinated.

“Vaccines are definitely saving lives and have been overwhelmingly successful since they became available,” Dr. Sullivan said.

Kids and COVID-19

Although fewer children are hospitalized with the virus, COVID-19 still poses a serious, life-threatening danger for some children, said Rosemary Olivero, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist.

At Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, between three and five children have been admitted each week with COVID-19 for the past few weeks.

“Today, two pediatric patients were admitted who were COVID-19 positive. Those two patients are requiring care in the ICU,” Dr. Olivero said.

Those treated at the hospital include a child who had multisystem inflammatory disease in children (MIS-C), a serious condition that is linked to COVID-19.

“A third to half of the patients (with MIS-C) require some care in the ICU,” she said.

At Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, one child died of MIS-C, one child had multiple amputations and several have had strokes, she added.

And because of the condition’s inflammatory effect on the heart, children who acquire the infection require follow-up care with pediatric cardiologists.

Breakthrough cases

Dr. Sullivan discussed the factors behind the number of cases among those vaccinated with the COVID-19 vaccine.

In some cases, he said patients are immunocompromised because of an underlying condition or medication they receive—and their body cannot form the same response to the vaccine as others.

And some of the cases involve “incidental discoveries,” he said. Patients admitted to the hospital for another reason—such as an injury or accident—are tested and found to carry the virus, although they do not show any symptoms.

Age also can be a factor.

“As we age, our immune system doesn’t work as well,” he said. “Our response to the vaccine doesn’t last as long.”

The spread of the delta variant of COVID-19 makes breakthrough cases more common, as well.

“Delta has been a game changer,” Dr. Sullivan said. “The delta variant is an evolutionary creation by this virus in its desire to circulate among the human population in a more efficient manner to keep infecting hosts.”

Compared to earlier versions of the COVID-19 virus, the delta variant:

  • Attaches much more tightly onto cells inside the human body.
  • Replicates at a much higher rate inside the nasal and respiratory tract.
  • Increases the amount of virus that people expel, which increases the risk of infecting those around them.

The doctors encouraged those with cold or flu symptoms to get tested for COVID-19. The delta variant seems to cause more cold-like symptoms, such as nasal congestion, coughing, sneezing and chest congestion, Dr. Sullivan said.

Vaccines and boosters

Third doses of Moderna or Pfizer are recommended for vaccinated people who are moderately or severely immunocompromised. They may be obtained at a local pharmacy or by calling the Spectrum Health COVID-19 Call Center at 833.755.0696 to make an appointment.

For others, doctors expect to hear guidelines soon from the federal Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and the Food and Drug Administration on how to distribute vaccine boosters this fall.

The doctors also urged vaccines for those who have not yet received a shot.

“That is going to be the way to protect yourself and others, with the least disruption to your life,” Dr. Olivero said.

“My No. 1 advice is to get the vaccine,” Dr. Sullivan said. “There is no single thing that is going to protect you more from COVID-19 than the vaccine.”

That goes for young, healthy individuals as well those who are older or with more risk factors, he said.

With the current surge, doctors are seeing a growing number of young people hospitalized with the virus.

“You may be young and in great shape and take great care of yourself, but that does not mean you cannot get a severe COVID-19 infection,” he said.