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Hospitalization depended heavily on race and vaccination status during U.S. omicron wave

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During the omicron wave, Black adults were more likely to end up hospitalized than White adults, regardless of their vaccination status, according to new research.

Black adults in the U.S. were hospitalized at nearly four times the rate of White adults during the recent omicron wave, according to a new study from the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Regardless of race and ethnicity, adults who were not vaccinated and boosted were also at a strikingly higher risk of hospitalization compared to those who received their primary vaccine doses and boosters or additional doses, the researchers found.

The overall hospitalization rate for the U.S. population during the recent omicron wave was around 38 cases per 100,000 — more than double that of the delta wave just six months prior. Black Americans were hospitalized at a rate of nearly 94 per 100,000 — compared to about 24 per 100,000 for White Americans.

The study was conducted by public health experts and physicians from multiple states using data on COVID-related hospitalization rates of people 18 and older from late December 2021 through January 2022. The data was collected by a surveillance tool known as COVID-NET.

Unvaccinated individuals were hospitalized at 12 times the rate of fully vaccinated and boosted people and nearly 4 times the rate of individuals who received only the primary vaccine doses. This is consistent with other studies that found hospitalization and death rates were much higher among unvaccinated people.

“Taken together, these findings suggest that the increased risk for hospitalization among Black adults during the omicron-predominant period might also be due, in part, to lower proportions of Black adults receiving both the primary vaccination series and booster doses,” the authors of the study said in the report.

Black adults in the U.S. still lag Whites in terms of vaccination rates in most states. Two thirds of White adults and 57 percent of Black adults are fully vaccinated — defined as having received a primary series, which could have been one or two shots depending on which vaccine an individual received. Data also show that 62 percent of booster recipients are White and 8 percent are Black, according to federal-level CDC data.

Black adults also have higher rates of chronic conditions — like diabetes, hypertension and certain types of cancers — and lower access to health care, which could make them more vulnerable to a COVID infection, according to earlier studies.

“The increase in transmissibility of the omicron variant might have amplified these risks for hospitalization, resulting in increased hospitalization rates among Black adults compared with White adults, irrespective of vaccination status,” the authors said.

But compared to delta, hospitalized patients during the omicron wave had shorter hospital stays and fewer admissions to the intensive care unit. Other earlier studies have hinted at less severe illness caused by omicron compared to delta.

Still, hospitals were more overwhelmed during the omicron wave than previous waves because of the sheer amount of people who were catching the virus.

The surveillance tool, COVID-NET, includes COVID hospitalization data from about 10 percent of the U.S. population representing 14 states. The authors note this as a limitation of the study, since the findings may not be representative of every state.

This story comes from a reporting collaboration that includes the Indianapolis Recorder and Side Effects Public Media — a public health news initiative based at WFYI. Follow Farah on Twitter: @Farah_Yousrym.

Farah Yousry covers health equity for Side Effects Public Media, in partnership with the Indianapolis Recorder. She can be reached at fyousry@wfyi.org.