Yale Daily News

As vaccination rates continue to increase in Connecticut and hopes for achieving herd immunity get closer to materializing, Yale New Haven Health system officials hammered home a resounding message: the best way to protect yourself and those around you is to get vaccinated. 

In a Thursday press conference, Yale New Haven Health system President Christopher O’Connor, Chief Medical Officer Thomas Balcezak and Senior Vice President and Chief Policy and Communications Officer Vin Petrini discussed hospital admission rates due to COVID-19, breakthrough infections and health system-wide vaccine mandates in light of the Delta variant. 

The Delta variant’s propensity for immune evasion has been raising questions over the protective longevity of vaccines, but YNHHS officials stressed that occasional hospitalizations due to breakthrough infections do not mean that vaccines are not doing their job.

“Six percent of our COVID admissions are among individuals that are fully vaccinated,” Balcezak said, referring to people who were admitted to YNHHS for COVID-19 symptoms. “That 6 percent is usually in folks that are older, have compromised immune systems and have other comorbid, particularly respiratory, conditions.”

O’Connor added that COVID-19 numbers for YNHHS “are extraordinarily different from when we first started the pandemic a year and a half ago””, which is a testament to “the efficacy of the vaccine.” According to Balcezak, the system peaked at “almost 900 patients on a given day” in early 2020, whereas as of Thursday, YNHHS had 132 hospitalized COVID-19 patients. 

Balcezak explained that over 99 percent of COVID-19 cases currently coming into the health system are due to the Delta variant, which is notorious for its greater viral load and higher transmissibility compared to other coronavirus variants.

YNHHS is currently testing all incoming patients for COVID-19 upon entry into the hospitals regardless of whether or not they are experiencing the associated symptoms. But in the process of testing, COVID-19 is also being detected in asymptomatic patients who are coming into the hospital for other reasons such as traumatic accidents or emergency procedures.

Around 30 percent of all patients who are hospitalized and test positive for COVID-19 have been vaccinated, according to Balcezak. However, only six percent of all patients who test positive for COVID-19 upon hospitalization are exhibiting symptoms. The remaining 24 percent are asymptomatic and typically come into the hospital for other health concerns and find out of their COVID-positive status upon admission.

“I think it’s important to underscore these statistics because there is no question that [the] vaccine works,” Balcezak said. “Those facts need to be out there so that folks don’t think that the Delta variant emergence is a reason not to get vaccinated.”

According to Balcezak, while the asymptomatic 24 percent will not need any treatment for COVID-19, they should still be isolated and properly cohorted according to their infection status while they address the health concerns that brought them to the hospital in the first place. This is meant to avoid unnecessary exposure for staff and other non-COVID-19 patients, he said. 

To ensure the safety of those within YNHHS hospitals, the system has also implemented a vaccine mandate — or “progressive discipline process,” as described by O’Connor — for employees. Under the mandate, employees who have not been vaccinated by October without having acquired an exemption will have their employment terminated.

“As healthcare providers, it is our responsibility to provide a safe environment for patients and their families, and this is just one way we’re doing that,” Balcezak said. “If you work in healthcare, I think it’s incumbent upon you to do so in a way that protects people, and that’s certainly the motivation behind doing what we’re doing.” 

YNHHS is holding COVID-19 vaccine “fairs” to give employees an opportunity to get vaccinated, Balcezak said. Since the institution of the mandate, vaccination rates among their staff have been “moving pretty aggressively in a positive direction,” according to O’Connor.

The mandate parallels an Executive Order issued by Gov. Ned Lamont, whereby Connecticut state employees working in childcare facilities and preK-12 schools, in addition to state hospital and long-term facilities staff, will need to be vaccinated by Sept. 27.

“I’m pleased that Connecticut, because we’re 84 percent vaccinated, is relatively flat,” Lamont said after a press conference in late August, as reported by CT Insider. “Doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods but we are what they used to say — remember in the early days of COVID — flattening the curve.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 75.3 percent of Connecticut’s eligible population has been fully vaccinated.

Maria Fernanda Pacheco is a staff reporter for the Science & Technology desk of the Yale Daily News. Originally from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, she is a sophomore in Grace Hopper College majoring in Neuroscience and participating in the Global Health Studies program.