COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have a new face now. We are not seeing nursing home patients as often as we did during the first and second peak. The number of COVID hospitalizations from the elderly or those with weakened immune systems or other medical problems that we saw in the winter have also been reduced. Instead, the new face of COVID-19 is the younger, healthy individuals.
The average age of an EAMC hospitalized patient with COVID-19 today is 48. Back in January, the average age of a patient hospitalized with COVID-19 was 64. We are seeing younger and otherwise healthy patients being hospitalized, and other hospitals in the country are seeing the same. We have even seen a healthy patient in their early 20s that required an ICU stay.
The reason we do not see many elderly patients now is likely because many have been vaccinated. Vaccines are successful because they can help reduce your chances of getting COVID-19, and more importantly, prevent you from getting a serious infection with it. We have not seen a single severe case of COVID-19 at EAMC from a person who was fully vaccinated. Besides being vaccinated, another thing many of our elderly are doing is that they are still wearing masks when necessary and taking precautions.
What is ahead? What is going to happen in the next several months? How are we going to enter the second half of 2021? To answer that question, we have to understand that natural selection shapes the evolution of a virus. While viruses never sleep, humans always do. Viruses need a host organism (a human, in this case) to reproduce. The only job of a virus is to evade the immune system, create more copies of itself, and spread to other hosts. Characteristics that help a virus do its job tend to be kept from one generation to another.
COVID-19 is an RNA virus (compared to a more stable DNA virus). SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) has been mutating since late 2019 and many variants have been recognized and likely will continue to be recognized in the United States and worldwide. It will be very challenging to deal with these variants in the future.
There are three things we can all do to help stop COVID from continuing to mutate: get vaccinated, wear a mask and avoid crowds. That’s because doing these things decrease transmission. If there is no interaction between a susceptible human and the virus, no mutation will take place. It’s like the old saying: “It takes two to tango.” We can slow down transmission, and therefore, mutations. Let’s be smart and responsible and help end this pandemic. Things are getting better, but we aren’t done yet.
Ricardo Maldonado, M.D., is an Infectious Diseases specialist and is the sole practitioner with East Alabama Infectious Disease. He joined the medical staff at EAMC in 2009.