HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — There are no two ways about it: Surging COVID-19 case counts, as omicron becomes the dominant variant, are indisputably awful news. Right?

Maybe not.

“I think the best metric of how bad it is, is the number of hospitalizations and the number of deaths,” Dr. John Goldman, UPMC infectious disease specialist, told abc27 News.

So by extension, does that mean the raw number of new COVID-19 cases — a number approaching all-time highs — is not such a good metric?

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“I strongly agree with that,” Goldman said.

Early pandemic hopes that the novel coronavirus might not be more deadly than the annual flu proved unfounded — it was far worse. But now, for the vaccinated — and especially the boosted, the non-elderly, and the non-immunocompromised — it kind of is true, Goldman said.

Among the vaccinated, “If you’re young and you’re healthy and you get a breakthrough infection, it’s likely to be something equivalent to the common cold,” he said. “And so one of the things that kind of gets lost in the focus on cases is, you really want to prevent hospitalizations and death, and the vaccines are doing that.”

That’s one dichotomy that’s becoming clear: Vaccines are only somewhat effective at preventing the virus from spreading, but they’re excellent at preventing it from killing. Similarly, a smaller-than-ever percentage of hospitalized patients are vaccinated — just six to seven percent of hospitalized UPMC patients, Goldman said, down from 10-20% after vaccines were widely available but before omicron.

Another change?

“In the spring of 2020, the average patient in the hospital was an elderly nursing home patient who was medically very ill,” Goldman said. Now “our average patient is young and thought they were healthy before they were admitted,” and nearly all are unvaccinated.

In other words, as opposed to if someone had said this early in the pandemic, it’s perfectly rational for someone to say “I’m really not worried,” as Eriliz Croft, a vaccinated mother pushing her infant Alexander in a stroller outside Capital City Mall in Camp Hill, told abc27 News Monday.

“I feel like we need to just stop focusing on the cases and just start focusing on our health,” Croft said.

“We’re seeing an increase in hospitalized patients, Goldman said. “But we’re seeing a decrease in hospitalized vaccinated patients.”

Asked by abc27 News for its view, the Pennsylvania of Department of Health cautioned against being too dismissive of the number of cases as a key metric but agreed with the idea of the growing disparity in danger between the vaccinated and unvaccinated:

COVID-19 case counts are still an important measure when you look at the data over time, like the 7-day trends we produce in our weekly data updates. Those data summaries are shared weekly on Tuesdays. However, as the virus mutates it is becoming clear that vaccines are doing the job for which they were designed, reducing the severity of the illness and preventing hospitalizations and death. More time is needed for public health professionals to study the real impact of the omicron variant on people who are vaccinated, but it does appear that fully vaccinated people who get the booster dose have significantly higher protection from the virus. Hospitals across the state and nation are reporting that the majority of patients with COVID-19 are unvaccinated. That is why it is more important than ever for every eligible person to get fully vaccinated, and get a booster dose as soon as they are eligible.

-Pennsylvania Dept. of Health