Penn Highlands Feels the Weight of the Pandemic, Provides Update on COVID Response

DUBOIS, Pa. (EYT) – Penn Highlands Healthcare officials say their health system is feeling the stress of the COVID-19 Pandemic, and cite high case counts and staff shortages as major issues.

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“As you are well aware, the COVID-19 numbers continue to climb throughout Pa., and in fact, the holiday surge started earlier than we expected. That is due to the Omicron variant,” said Penn Highlands Chief Medical Officer Dr. Russell Cameron during a press conference on Wednesday.

Cameron said as of Wednesday, Penn Highlands had 92 COVID in-patients and had recorded 17 deaths from the virus in the past week. Twenty-one cases of COVID were reported at Penn Highlands DuBois, and two were reported at Penn Highlands Brookville.

The patients with the worst COVID outcomes were those who are unvaccinated, said Cameron.

“This past month, we had as many in-patients system-wide as we did during our peak in 2020. This year we are seeing more patients in the physician offices and hospital clinics, but our number of hospital admissions are similar to this time last year,” he added.

Additionally, Cameron said Penn Highlands is seeing more young children as COVID patients and stated that Pennsylvania is one of the states with the highest number of pediatric COVID cases.

On the staffing side, out of 6,100 employees across the entire health system, 199 had tested positive for the virus or were awaiting test results.

Penn Highlands Chief Operating Officer Mark Norman said staff is stretched throughout the health system due to staff being sick. He said the health system had taken steps to mitigate staff shortages.

“We have focused more resources on hiring processes, as well as preparing to change the way we staff our patient care floors to utilize more support personnel to supplement because of the shortage we have for registered nurses,” he said.

Norman also touched on the staffing shortages in nursing homes, saying it has become difficult to move patients from hospitals to nursing homes due to the lack of personnel.

The staffing shortage has hit the services Penn Highlands can offer, with some elective surgeries being postponed as a result.

“At some of our facilities, at times, we prioritize essential surgeries and postpone the elective ones. We’ve also reduced hours for some of our q-care walk-in clinics due to the staffing,” Norman said.

A lack of blood is another hurdle Penn Highlands faces. Cameron said the problem is nationwide and pointed to the quick rise in COVID cases as the reason for the low supply.

“The rapid rise in COVID-19 case numbers has rapidly impeded the ability to supply blood to hospitals. With increasing donor cancellation rates, American Red Cross and other blood suppliers are experiencing significant disruptions through their supply chain,” he said. “Penn Highlands’ supply comes from Community Bank of Erie. Their experience is the same as other blood banks. They’re all at critical lows.”

Cameron also said a resurgent flu season has contributed to the pressure Penn Highlands faces.

“The flu strain that is dominant in the U.S. has in the past been linked to more severe flu seasons. This dominant virus, which is a strain of H3N2, is not among the types of flu that this season’s vaccine specifically guards against. That means this season’s vaccine may be less effective against that strain,” he said.

COVID testing is also strained.

Norman said Penn Highlands is finding it difficult to stock up on tests.

“People are finding long lines for tests, long wait times, and general lack of access to tests. Pharmacies can’t even keep the at-home tests on the shelves due to how highly transmissible the Omicron variant is,” he said, adding the problem was not unique to their system.

Penn Highlands is in the process of acquiring Pfizer’s anti-viral pill, explained Cameron, although it is available only in limited quantities.

“There is a limited supply of the medication, and it is being sent to regional pharmacies in limited numbers,” he said. “We are in the process of trying to get doses for our regional pharmacies.”

Currently, 80% of Penn Highlands staff is vaccinated, while 45- to 60% of the people in the communities they serve are vaccinated depending on the county, according to Norman.

Cameron added that although there is always the possibility of a breakthrough infection even while being fully vaccinated, fully vaccinated individuals who contract COVID have a weaker disease with better outcomes.

“People who have both doses of the vaccine and the booster are experiencing milder symptoms, less server outcomes, less chance of being admitted to a hospital, and less risk of mortality,” he said, adding Penn Highlands will continue to have vaccine clinics in all of their locations.

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