The Biden administration is reportedly changing the way COVID-19 hospitalizations are counted in a way that critics have been demanding for months.
According to Politico, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are asking hospitals to change how they report COVID-19 patients. The federal government now wants hospitals to distinguish between people who go to the hospital because they have COVID-19 from those who are admitted to the hospital for other reasons, like a broken leg, and then test positive for the virus.
Changing the way COVID-19 hospitalizations are reported could have a cascading effect on the federal government's response to the pandemic. Masking requirements, social distancing guidelines, and other coronavirus restrictions are enacted by public health officials who use case counts and hospitalizations as key metrics to gauge the severity of the virus.
Since the surge of cases caused by the Omicron variant, hospitalizations have come to be seen as a more reliable measure of severe disease. Counting coronavirus cases relies upon accurate testing, and people generally only get tested if they experience symptoms or if they've come into contact with someone who had the virus, while deaths are a lagging indicator.
The goal of the Biden administration is to have national data present a more accurate count of Americans who have been hospitalized because of COVID-19.
"While the guidance and intent of the hospital data collection is to capture people who are admitted for Covid (vs with Covid), in practice the data reported varies by entity,” an HHS official told Politico. "Some entities may be able to delineate ... but we do not do this in the national dataset.”
The Biden administration is reportedly conducting a national review of hospitalization data to determine how many people went to the hospital for COVID-19 during the Omicron surge and how many people went for unrelated reasons but tested positive afterward. In one CDC report made public last week, a hospital in California found that 80% of its COVID-19 patients came to the hospital because of the virus while 20% were admitted "primarily for non–COVID-19 conditions."
Lower hospitalization rates would erase the stated reasons for COVID-19 policies that Americans have grown weary of after two years of the pandemic. The initial "two weeks to slow the spread" campaign led by former President Donald Trump and White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci in March 2020 was intended to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by coronavirus patients. In a world where hospitals are not overburdened and vaccines are readily available, there's little need for pandemic restrictions.
Critics of the Biden administration have argued for months that reported COVID-19 hospitalizations were inflated by the way they were counted. Some people who test positive for the virus in the hospital experienced only mild symptoms and were admitted for reasons unrelated to COVID-19. Many have called for the CDC to change how hospitalizations are counted and revoke the pandemic guidelines.
Several states are already taking action to return to normal as Omicron cases have fallen. Democratic governors in Connecticut, Delaware and New Jersey this week announced they will lift statewide mask requirements in schools in March. But the federal government has been slow to update its guidelines on masking and other policies.
On Feb. 2, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters that hospitalization rates and death rates are the metrics the federal government will use to determine when it is time to lift pandemic measures like masking.
"We will continue to reevaluate, and we know people are anxious," Walensky said.