‘The Perfect Storm’: Area Hospitals Battle COVID-19 Surge

BROOKVILLE, Pa. (EYT) – With COVID-19 surging again, area hospitals are seeing significant increases in COVID-positive patients, increased hospitalizations for the virus, and deaths.

Three different health systems, Butler Health System, UPMC, and Penn Highlands Healthcare reported a surge of the virus as intense as the one last winter.

“It’s been serious,” said Dr. David Rottinghaus, Butler Health System’s chief medical officer on December 10. “We went from around 25 to 30 patients in the hospital weeks ago to passing our peak of in-patient folks at both Clarion and Butler really within the last two weeks.”

According to Penn Highlands Healthcare Chief Medical Officer Dr. Russell Cameron, the surge of COVID patients is due to not only more people getting sick, but because COVID patients often get severe enough cases to warrant hospitalization and long-term stays at hospitals.

“Also, because of COVID-19, nursing homes and other healthcare settings have had a decreased ability to accept patients who would have typically been discharged from the hospital. This is causing issues not just in our hospitals but throughout healthcare,” Cameron added.

UPMC Northwest President Brian Durniok echoed the Rottinghaus’ and Cameron’s sentiments.

“COVID-19 cases are climbing across all the communities UPMC serves,” said Durniok. “Currently, we have the highest number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients that we’ve seen since this time last winter.”

For Butler Health System, the COVID surge has meant postponing some elective surgeries and increased pressures on staff – which, incidentally, is less now than at this time last year.

“It really is the perfect storm in that we have this pandemic. We have this novel virus then all the other demands for care, scheduled and unscheduled, out of the emergency department, et cetera that get piled on top of that and coupled with unfortunately less staff as compared to the same time last year,” explained Rottinghaus.

For staffing issues, he said at any one time they could have “a couple dozen” staff out due to the need to quarantine for COVID.

Cameron stated that Penn Highlands has rescheduled “only a small number of surgeries” and that they have enough staff to provide their patients the care they require.

Surgeries at UPMC Northwest are evaluated daily, said Durniok and the “timing for procedures involves individual conversations and decisions between the patient and their care team. These conversations happen all the time.”

Asked about staffing issues, Durniok said decreasing hospital capacity from both COVID and non-COVID visits is challenging due to a “nationwide staffing shortage.”

None of the hospitals indicated they were suffering from supply-related issues.

All three hospital systems gave different answers as to when the surge began, with Rottinghaus saying late August, Cameron in mid-October, and Durniok in November.

It is a certainty that COVID-19 cases have been steadily increasing in the past few months.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, since September 10 there have been 2,730 new cases in Clarion County, 3,949 in Venango, and 2,795 in Jefferson.

This amounts to a 76.6% increase for Clarion, an 83.9% increase for Venango, and a 74.3% increase for Jefferson in the time period from September 10 to December 13.

Deaths have been similarly high in those three counties: since September 1, there have been 61 deaths in Clarion, 75 in Venango, and 64 in Jefferson.

The changing of seasons is also concerning due to the traditional flu and virus seasons, according to Rottinghaus, with entering the flu and seasonal virus season in conjunction with the surge.

“Last year, we didn’t see much flu at all. Many of us practicing saw little flu at all, but at that time, there were strict mitigation measures in place,” he said. “Many of us fear because the mitigation measures have gone away and because people aren’t masking and distancing as they were in public last year, that a lot of these seasonal viruses will come back.”

Durniok echoed this sentiment and said rapidly rising seasonal flu cases could further complicate the situation, especially for emergency departments.

To add another twist to the situation, there is uncertainty surrounding the new “Omicron” variant of COVID-19.

Both Cameron and Rottinghaus stated early reports of the variant indicate it to be more contagious but milder than the predominant “Delta” variant, although they both cautioned there is little information about it available at this point.

Stressing the resources UPMC has at its disposal, Durniok said, “Our data analytics team has tracked COVID-19 trends with each variant and surge and will continue to do that when Omicron arrives in our region. We can use the strength of our healthcare databases to know who is most vulnerable to infection and complications and how well treatments work.”

According to all three health systems, the surge of COVID-19 is being driven by the unvaccinated.

Durniok stated across the UPMC system, 75% of COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated. Cameron gave the same figure for Penn Highlands.

“What has held true and continues to hold true not just in our system, but internationally, is that unvaccinated individuals make up the majority of patients in our hospital. They definitely make up the majority of intensive care unit patients and they make up the majority of our deaths,” said Rottinghaus.

Clarion, Venango, and Jefferson Counties have some of the lowest vaccination rates in the state. Only 42.6% of Clarion residents, 44.7% of Venango residents, and 46.8% of Jefferson residents are fully vaccinated, which does not count booster shots.

Forest County seems to defy the trends set by the three other counties. Since September 10, the county has only seen 335 new cases of COVID-19 for a 22.6% increase and nine deaths. As a side note, 68.7% of the county’s population is fully vaccinated.

Rottinghaus, Cameron, and Duronik all recommended traditional public health measures such as hand washing in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. They all stated that masking and restricting social gatherings were very effective in reducing the transmission of the virus.

However, the three said vaccination continues to be the best way to prevent COVID infection and slow down the current surge.

“The best tactic for slowing the surge is to get vaccinated — including the first, second, and booster shots of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines,” said Cameron.

“It’s very important because it’s protective against getting COVID-19, and it’s protecting against transmitting it,” said Rottinghaus, who explained though fully-vaccinated people can still contract COVID-19, “the true benefit” lies in the vaccine’s ability to greatly reduce the risk of serious infection.

“I recommend that everyone who’s eligible for a vaccine get vaccinated,” he said. “I would especially say that those with a risk of severe disease or severe illness, a lot of underlying medical problems, get vaccinated.”

According to Rottinghaus, there is a lot of hesitance to get vaccinated, especially in rural areas. He said as a part of the medical community, he believes in engaging those with different beliefs than he does.

“I’ve always considered one of my duties as a doctor to be an educator and to have conversations with people and to explain to them, just as a mechanic would explain to me what’s wrong with my car, what it is they should be doing to regain health and to overcome whatever condition they’re seeing me for and to get on the right track or educate them about their illness or condition or health,” he explained.

“Whatever the reason is, I think there are people out there that won’t get it and can’t be convinced. But, that doesn’t mean we’ll stop trying to build relationships and engage them and gain their trust. We are out for their best interests, and though we won’t agree with some of their decisions, that’s one of the foundations of healthcare and medicine.”

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