BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — In early January, Governor Kathy Hochul said she wanted to study how many COVID patients were in the hospital because of severe symptoms versus asymptomatic patients who tested positive after going to the hospital for an unrelated reason. At that time, a strong majority of COVID patients hospitalized in Erie County were indeed there because of symptoms caused by the virus.

On January 4th, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz said, “It’s approximately 90-92% of all COVID-19 patients are in a hospital for COVID-19. There is a small portion, less than 10%, who may be going for a procedure, or were in a car accident, had a broken leg – they test then and find out they’re positive.”

Infectious disease experts refer to that as ‘Incidental COVID’ – an asymptomatic patient who is admitted to a hospital for another reason, but ends up being positive when tested. And new data released by Erie County shows trends have changed since the county executive said that in early January.

The data released by the Erie County Department of Health on Thursday shows that on January 18th, 347 of the 580 COVID patients in Erie County hospitals – about 60% – were admitted because of COVID. That means 223 patients – about 40% – were admitted for another reason.

The number of patients who fit into the “Incidental COVID” category has increased from 151 to 233 since January 7.

According to Dr. Thomas Russo, an infectious disease expert with the UB Jacobs School of Medicine, it’s important to track this data to truly measure the burden COVID puts on hospitals.

“Obviously that’s important,” Dr. Russo said. “One of the main goals of vaccination is to minimize severe disease that results in hospitalizations and bad outcomes. We’d like to accurately measure that.”

So what does it mean if the proportion of Incidental COVID cases is increasing in Erie County hospitals? Russo says it demonstrates that the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is able to still cause asymptomatic or mild infections in even vaccinated individuals.

“But at the end of the day, it’s good news,” he says. “I’d rather have these incidental cases than all of those end up being cases in the hospital due to COVID.”

“The increasing number of Incidental COVID cases in hospitals likely reflects the fact that fully vaccinated people are still susceptible to asymptomatic breakthrough infections due to Omicron,” he added.

Russo says people admitted to the hospital for COVID are still primarily unvaccinated. He says the Omicron variant is to be taken seriously, especially for unvaccinated people or individuals with underlying medical conditions who have not received their booster shot.

And he notes Incidental COVID cases can still be problematic.

“Although Incidental COVID doesn’t reflect the true burden of disease, it still is problematic for our hospitals,” he said. “These individuals usually need to be put in separate rooms. Health care personnel need to use PPE, which is a strain on the PPE system. So special measures still need to be taken for them.

“At the end of the day, we’d like to see all of these cases decline.”

Chris Horvatits is an award-winning reporter who joined the News 4 team in December 2017. See more of his work here.