The COVID-19 pandemic is not over, and the uptick in cases of new Omicron subvariants of the coronavirus has the potential to disrupt medical practice operations at a time when staffing is already stretched thin due to labor shortages and summer vacations.
A July 12, 2022, MGMA Stat poll found that 42% of medical groups reported that staff and provider sick leave attributed to COVID-19 infections during the past two months increased compared to spring 2022. Another 22% of practice leaders reported recent COVID-19 sick leave was about the same as the spring months, while 36% said COVID-19 sick leave decreased in the past two months.
The poll had 488 applicable responses.
Among practice leaders responding to the poll, only 30% said they have updated policies around masking, personal protective equipment (PPE) or visitors at their facilities in the past two months, while 70% noted that their existing policies remain in place. This comes after relatively few medical practices said they had relaxed mask policies in a March 11, 2022, MGMA Stat poll.
Insights from poll respondents about how practices are reacting to the uptick in COVID-19 transmission included:
- “We have reinstituted our mask policy and are restricting visitors.”
- “We continue to wear masks in any patient-facing areas.”
- “We've always kept our requirements in place for PPE and all COVID-related policies, even when given the option to remove restrictions. For the safety of our staff and patients, our strict policies remained in place.”
- “As of last week, masks are required in the office and no lunch together in the break room.”
- “[Our] visitor policy has relaxed but is still limited to one to two per patient at a time.”
The surge in COVID-19 cases from Omicron subvariants might signal the most significant touchpoint in the discussion of keeping practices safe during the pandemic since April 2022, when a Florida court ruling overturned a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) rule that required masks on public transportation — a ruling that led to a slight spike in patient confusion over mask rules in practices.
COVID-19 case, hospitalization and death rates on the rise
The United States began this week with a cumulative 88 million COVID-19 cases reported since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the CDC, with a seven-day average of more than 106,000 new cases daily. Kaiser Family Foundation’s Global COVID-19 Tracker reported a rolling seven-day average of 421 daily deaths to end last week, which is trending upward despite being well below the February 2022 peak of more than 2,600 daily deaths as the initial wave of Omicron crested, eclipsing the levels seen in the summer 2021 Delta wave.
This week began with COVID-19 hospitalizations up 18% nationwide over the past 14 days, reaching a daily average of 37,899 on July 11, according to a New York Times analysis of data from the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS).
Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5
This recent uptick in COVID-19 cases is being driven by Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5, which became the dominant variants from COVID-19 monitoring reported by the CDC. For the week ending July 9, the CDC NowCast — a model that estimates recent proportions of circulating variants — shows BA.4 (16.3%) and BA.5 (65%) accounting for more than 8 in 10 COVID-19 cases nationwide.
- For more on spotting the symptoms of a COVID-19 infection with BA.4 and BA.5, read this New York Times Well desk overview.
This prevalence recently led a committee recommendation from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to add Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 spike protein components to a new round of COVID-19 booster shots. According to Peter Marks, MD, PhD, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research (CBER), the hope is for a new Omicron-specific vaccine being available for booster doses in fall 2022 in the United States.
As reported by NBC News earlier this week, the Biden Administration is expected to allow all adults to get a second COVID-19 booster shot later this year, regardless of risk factors, once the Omicron-specific vaccines are authorized.
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