COVID-19 ICU numbers dip to record low in NC; experts credit vaccine rollout for huge decline


RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care units across North Carolina has plunged to record lows, with health leaders crediting the widespread vaccination effort for those declines.

“I think that’s absolutely what we’re seeing,” said Dr. Lisa Pickett, a trauma surgeon at Duke University Hospital.

The 224 COVID-19 patients in the state’s ICU units Wednesday were the fewest reported by the state Department of Health and Human Services since the agency began tracking those counts in June.

Source: NCDHHS dashboard.

Every day since March 23 has ranked among the nine days with the fewest ICU patients with COVID-19, with the seven-day rolling average of those figures dipping to 231 earlier this week.

Calling it “really good news,” RTI International epidemiologist Dr. Pia MacDonald said she does “think it is evidence of the increase uptake of the vaccine.”

The drop in the state’s ICU numbers comes as the overall hospital figures ticked back up this week, approaching a return to 1,000 after increasing in each of the past four days.

But experts say the ICU drop is evidence of success with the vaccines, which studies show greatly reduce the risk of serious effects if a breakthrough infection were to take place.

The patients who are in intensive care now tend to be younger, Pickett said. Older people received top priority when the vaccine rollout began in December.

Pickett called it “a general indication to us that the people who have been able to be vaccinated are not ending up in the ICU.”

Less than 10 percent of ICU patients now are there because of COVID-19 — a massive drop from the peak of more than 35 percent in mid-January. At that time, when hospital administrators were concerned about overcrowding, ICU units were 85 percent full overall. That occupancy rate has dropped closer to 75 percent now.

Another indication of the effectiveness of the vaccines — a massive drop in deaths.

Source: NCDHHS dashboard.

The seven-day daily average number of deaths surpassed 100 per day in mid-January. That number dropped to nearly 10 in mid-March, the last period of time with reliable data. More recent figures are subject to change as backdated death reports are filed to DHHS.

“The death rate is plummeting, which is exactly what we’d want to see with an effective vaccine strategy,” MacDonald said.

And a data analysis found a loose — and, potentially, early — correlation between counties that had high per capita rates of vaccine doses through late February and their per capita case counts during the past two weeks.

Of the 15 counties that administered the most doses per capita during those first three months of the rollout, six ranked among the 15 counties with the fewest new cases reported per 100,000 people during the last two weeks. Only two of those counties rank among the 40 counties with the newest cases per capita reported during that stretch.

“I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to make those kind of correlations,” MacDonald said.

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