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Almost half of ‘Covid hospitalizations’ in Massachusetts are among people who were admitted for a non-virus related reason. The revelation by state health officials Thursday makes the state the first to differentiate between hospitalizations ‘with’ Covid versus hospitalizations ‘because of’ Covid. 

This failure to differentiate nationwide has led to record hospitalization figures being recorded nation wide despite the relative mildness of the now-dominant Omicron variant.  

On Tuesday, January 18, official figures reported 3,187 Bay Staters hospitalized with Covid. The figure included both sets of Covid infected people.

The state’s Department of Public Health (DPH) revealed Thursday afternoon that after analyzing and differentiating patient data, only 49 percent – or around 1,561 – were admitted because of a severe case of the virus.

Massachusetts became the first state to release data differentiating Covid positive patients in hospitals by their reason for being admitted. The data revealed that only 49% of 'Covid patients' in the hospital are actually receiving treatment for Covid, while the others are being treated for another condition and just testing positive while present. Pictured: A Covid patient in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, receives treatment from a health care worker on January 11

Massachusetts became the first state to release data differentiating Covid positive patients in hospitals by their reason for being admitted. The data revealed that only 49% of ‘Covid patients’ in the hospital are actually receiving treatment for Covid, while the others are being treated for another condition and just testing positive while present. Pictured: A Covid patient in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, receives treatment from a health care worker on January 11

‘I think it’s really important to understand vaccine effectiveness because we are calling these patients COVID hospitalizations,’ Dr Shira Doron, an epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center, told Boston 25.

‘At Tufts Medical Center, half of them are vaccinated, and you don’t want to be calling them a vaccine breakthrough hospitalization when they aren’t.’ 

According to official data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on Friday, 87 percent of Massachusetts’ 18,250 hospital beds are currently occupied, with just over 3,000 by people infected by Covid.

On average, 159,000 Americans are hospitalized with Covid every day, per the HHS, a pandemic record. 

The HHS data does not differentiate between Covid hospitalizations, though, and the figure is inflated.

Not only does that make the figure misleading, but it could also hurt the public’s perception of the Covid vaccine, boosters, and the Omicron variant itself.

Health officials are adamant that the Omicron variant is by far the most mild Covid strain yet.

Data revealed last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that a person infected with the Omicron variant is 50 percent less likely to be hospitalized and 91 percent less likely to die of Covid that if they caught the Delta strain.

The agency also reports that the Omicron variant accounts for 99.5 percent of active cases in the U.S.

Experts have also determine that being fully vaccinated may not provide adequate protection against infection, it can still prevent the most severe of the virus’s symptoms.

Receiving a booster shot also re-establishes protection against infection that people had against other strains with just the original vaccine regimen. 

Omicron is spreading rapidly, though, causing cases to reach record levels as well. At some points this month, the nation was averaging around 800,000 new cases a day – nearly quadruple the peak case count during summer’s surge of the Delta variant.  

With so many people walking around with the virus – and some experts projecting that only one-third of cases are actually being included in the reported virus totals – many people coming in for routine treatment or for emergency situations are arriving while positive.

Massachusetts is now the first state to make this type of differentiation. Doron says it can help officials get a better look at the current situation in hospitals around the state.

‘When the wave is behind us and COVID cases are low, all those patients admitted for reasons other than COVID, those types of cases aren’t going away,’ Doron said.

‘So, if 50 percent are not due to COVID, we have to know that we’re not getting that capacity back when COVID cases go down.’ 

Calls for hospitals to do a better job differentiating Covid patients have been loudening in recent weeks.

The current record figure is near useless, and does not at all give Americans an accurate snapshot of the current state of the pandemic.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul, whose state is among the national leaders is Covid hospitalization rate, called for hospitals to be more detailed in their reporting earlier this month.

‘When we’re looking at the hospitalizations of people testing positive in a hospital, is that person in the hospital because of COVID, or did they show up there and are routinely tested and showing positive, and they may have been asymptomatic or even just had the sniffles?’ she said during a news briefing on January 4.

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Covid case growth is starting to slow down nationwide as the U.S. finally reaches the peak of its winter Omicron surge. Cases have doubled over the past two weeks in only 15 states, after nearly every state was recording a 100 percent increase or more last week. Cases are either decreasing or flat in eight states and the District of Columbia as well.

Omicron, which first arrived in the U.S. in late November and started fueling major outbreaks in December, is already burning out. States that were leaders in case growth last month are now recording the largest drops in cases.

Massachusetts has joined the ranks of the states recording declining Covid cases, with daily infections down 11 percent over the past two weeks. The Bay State is recording 177 cases per every 100,000 residents at the moment.

New Jersey and New York were the first states struck by the variant, with New York City and the surrounding areas in both states being slammed hard and fast by Omicron in early December. Both immediately took the national lead and infection rate and both had their daily case rates increase more than seven-fold in a matter of weeks.

In New Jersey, 177 of every 100,000 residents are testing positive for the virus every day, down 49 percent over the past two weeks. In New York, a 42 percent drop has the Empire state’s infection rate down to 206 cases per 100,000 residents.  

Maryland is also among the leaders in dropping case rate, with cases in the state dropping 42 percent to 123 infections per every 100,000 residents every day.

Other states recording a contraction of cases over the past two weeks include Florida (cases down 22 percent), Connecticut (17 percent) and Georgia (12 percent). Delaware is recording no change in cases over the past two weeks, though they will likely join the ranks of states with declining cases in the coming days.

All of the states featuring case declines are along the east coast, highlighting the westward movement of the virus over time. Once Omicron arrived, it struck many population centers along the east coast and took an extra few weeks for it to make it across the country. 

Of 15 states that are currently recording case increases of 100 percent or more, 14 are west of the Mississippi river. The lone eastern state suffering a massive surge is South Carolina. The Palmetto state has recorded a 109 percent jump in cases over the past two weeks, which is a far fall from the near 900 percent increase it was recording last week.

Alaska has reemerged as the national leader in case growth this week, with new daily cases up 304 percent over the past two weeks. The state experienced a large surge of cases during autumn, an early indicator of a winter Delta surge to come. Cases burned out there, though, and Alaska actually recorded declining cases for much of late fall and early Winter.

Omicron has finally found its way to the state 1,600 miles from the U.S. mainland, though, causing a second wave in the state during these fall and winter months. It is now among six states to have an infection rate of 300 per every 100,000 residents or higher, at 304.

No other state comes close to matching Alaska’s recent case growth. The state with the next highest change is cases over the past two weeks is Oklahoma, with the state recording a 223 percent increase over the past two weeks. Wisconsin, which held the lead Wednesday, now falls to third in the U.S., experiencing a 211 percent increase over the past 14 days.

No other states have had cases triple or more over the past two weeks, though some states in the great plains – Wyoming (194 percent increase over past two weeks), North Dakota (184 percent) and Montana (183 percent) are starting to see cases climb as well.

Rhode Island is still the national leader in infection rate despite its high vaccination rate. The Ocean state is recording 404 infections per every 100,000 residents daily. The 78 percent of residents who are fully vaccinated is the second highest rate in America.

No other state is recording more than 400 infections per every 100,000 residents, though five are logging more than 300 per day – Wisconsin (398), Utah (341), South Carolina (338), Hawaii (312), Alaska (305).

Maine is the only U.S. state recording less than 100 daily infections for every 100,000 residents – at 68 – and is among the leaders in vaccination rate with 77 percent of residents having received their shots.

Alaska’s case growth has also led to a surge in deaths, with the state now jumping to the top of daily average mortality rate as well. The state is currently logging 1.29 deaths per every 100,000 residents. 

Michigan, a former leader which looked like it had gotten its situation under control, is seeing death counts rise as well. The Great Lakes state is now second in daily mortality rate, with 1.23 of every 100,000 residents dying of Covid daily. 

Tennessee has relinquished the dubious honor of having the nation’s highest death rate, and sits in third place with 1.1 daily deaths per 100,000 residents. 

While cases may be dropping in New York and Maryland, deaths are lagging behind. Both states are also among the leaders in mortality rate, with 1.09 and 1.07 out of every 100,000 residents dying from the virus each day respectively. 

No other state is recording more than one daily Covid death per every 100,000 residents as of Thursday. 

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In Bristol County, Massachusetts, local police are using trained dogs to ‘sniff out’ COVID-19 in local schools, police stations, and other popular locations.

Two dogs named Huntah and Duke were taught to identify the virus in the air, trained by sniffing masks of people who tested positive for Covid.

Dogs trained in this method were able to identify the coronavirus with 97.5 percent accuracy in a double-blind study conducted at Florida International University.

The practice has also been tested at Miami International Airport, and it may have utility for a variety of institutions ranging from elementary schools to large concerts.

Such additional protection could be useful in the wake of Omicron outbreaks that have emptied schools and businesses, with more than 4,100 schools currently either closed or in virtual learning, per Burbio’s K-12 School Opening Tracker

In Bristol County, police officers are using dogs trained in Covid-sniffing to identify the virus in schools, police stations, and other buildings. Pictured: Human and dog K-9 unit officers visiting a school in the county

In Bristol County, police officers are using dogs trained in Covid-sniffing to identify the virus in schools, police stations, and other buildings. Pictured: Human and dog K-9 unit officers visiting a school in the county

When one of the dogs identifies Covid in a space, the unit disinfects it and alerts parents if necessary. Pictured: Disinfecting in an elementary school library after a Covid identification

When one of the dogs identifies Covid in a space, the unit disinfects it and alerts parents if necessary. Pictured: Disinfecting in an elementary school library after a Covid identification 

Despite national and local leaders’ pledges to keep schools open for in-person learning, these institutions have been particularly hard-hit by the Omicron variant. 

The Biden administration is sending 10 million Covid tests to schools in order to help them stay open.

But in one Massachusetts county, schools are using another kid-friendly strategy: Covid-sniffing dogs.

In Bristol County, schools, police stations, government buildings, and other commonly-visited institutions get regular visits from these dogs.

CNN recently followed the K-9 unit, including dogs Huntah and Duke, on a day of searching for Covid at L.G. Nourse Elementary School in Norton, Massachusetts.

The dogs have been trained to recognize the coronavirus’ scent by sniffing the masks of people who tested positive for Covid, one of the county’s K-9 unit police officers told CNN.

If a dog identifies the virus, it will signal by sitting down in the spot. Dogs are rewarded for their Covid identification efforts with compliments and toys.

At L.G. Nourse Elementary School, Huntah found coronavirus odor on a bookshelf in the library, while Duke identified it in the cafeteria.

‘An odor is almost like a cone,’ said the K-9 unit officer. ‘The source of the odor is strong at the base, like it was on the bookshelf, and then it goes out.’

If the dogs identify coronavirus odor in a specific student’s seat, the school will notify parents, Norton Public School Superintendent Joseph Baeta told CNN.

‘We want parents to have that right to make a decision about, do they want to test and stay the student, do they want to pull the student, or just keep an eye out for symptoms,’ Baeta said.

The schools also disinfect the area where the coronavirus was detected.

Between sniffing for Covid, the dogs are allowed to play with students at the school, providing some joyful energy to the kids.

Dr Kenneth Furton pioneered the Covid-sniffing method through research at Florida International University, where he serves as the provost. Pictured: Furton speaks to CNN

Dr Kenneth Furton pioneered the Covid-sniffing method through research at Florida International University, where he serves as the provost. Pictured: Furton speaks to CNN

The dog training practice comes from research done at Florida International University, led by university provost and forensics expert Dr Kenneth Furton.

Furton has been studying canine smell for 28 years, according to University Business magazine.

His previous research has found that dogs could be trained to recognize diseases with over 90 percent accuracy, he told CNN.

‘When we trained these Covid dogs,’ Furton said, ‘and we did double-blind studies, and we published them in a peer-reviewed journal, we actually received a 97.5 percent average accuracy.’

In double-blind studies, both the participants and the researcher don’t know which treatment they’re receiving – in other words, whether the dogs are given a Covid scent or something else.

These trials are considered the gold standard of medical research.

‘These canines are remarkable – not only in accuracy but also in speed,’ Furton told University Business.

‘Even a rapid test takes tens of minutes to hours or days whereas dogs provide detection in seconds,’ he said.

‘So, if you’re looking at getting students into a graduation ceremony, residents into a concert or getting travelers on a plane or boat, having these canines as another protective measure against the spread of the virus is crucial.’

The dog’s detection accuracy could be reduced if the animals are searching in a highly dense space, or if they aren’t motivated.

Furton previously tested this method in scientific studies and at the Miami International Airport. Pictured: Furton with one of the Covid-trained dogs

Furton previously tested this method in scientific studies and at the Miami International Airport. Pictured: Furton with one of the Covid-trained dogs

While this research is still in early stages, Bristol County isn’t the only place using dogs to detect Covid.

The Miami International Airport also pioneered the Covid-sniffing strategy with a 30-day pilot program this past September.

‘Once we complete this study, the hope is that we will be able to expand it throughout MIA and then to other airports around the country,’ Furton told Yahoo! News at the time.

The strategy has potential for airports, K-12 schools, colleges and universities, large events, and a variety of other institutions.

Still, canine Covid investigators can’t replace the vaccines, masks, and tests that public health experts say are the best ways to protect against the virus.

‘This is not to replace what the CDC and [Massachusetts Department of Public Health] are telling people in the communities about what to do,’ Bristol County Sheriff Thomas Hodgson told CNN.

‘This is a way for us to enhance that, in a very direct way, and be proactive to prevent more people from getting sick.’    

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