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Virginia hospitals cope with omicron surge

Virginia Department of Health
A screenshot taken Tuesday, Jan. 11, of the VDH's summary of COVID cases across the state since the beginning of the pandemic. It shows a spike of 70,000 new cases on the right.

On Monday, Governor Northam declared a state of emergency to help hospitals deal with capacity and staffing issues due to the recent spike in COVID-19. In addition, local hospitals have made changes to accommodate an increase in patients. But so far, omicron's impact hasn't been as stressful to their operations as the delta surge. WMRA's Randi B. Hagi reports.

More than 70,000 new COVID cases were confirmed in Virginia the week of January 1st – a new record in the pandemic. Positivity rates for PCR tests are also spiking – according to the Virginia Department of Health website, most localities in the Shenandoah Valley are trending between 30 and 45%. Neighboring outliers are Highland County, up at 63%, and Charlottesville, down at 25%.

The CDC estimates that the omicron variant now accounts for more than 93% of COVID cases in our region of the country, and local hospitals are seeing this variant's peculiarities play out in their emergency rooms. Dr. Reid Adams, UVa Health’s chief medical officer, said in a press conference on Friday that they had 82 COVID patients in the hospital that morning.

Randi B. Hagi
Screenshot of Wendy Horton, UVA Medical Center’s chief executive officer and Dr. Reid Adams, UVA Health’s chief medical officer, from Friday's press conference.

REID ADAMS: About 25% of those are in the ICU, so that's a little bit different than we saw with the delta surge, where it was more 50-50 … The in and out flow of COVID patients is pretty rapid. With the omicron patient, they usually need to stay a few days rather than weeks, and so there's a fair amount of turnaround. But I would estimate the vast majority are still unvaccinated. It's probably closer to 75 or 80%.

Adams said UVa Health has at times altered their elective surgery schedule, but so far has not had to halt those procedures.

ADAMS: I think the biggest impact is we have not been able to take as many transfers as we would like, for those that need our help.

Sentara RMH in Harrisonburg is currently postponing elective surgeries. President Doug Moyer said they hope to resume them in a week or two, and his team will reevaluate that next Thursday.

Doug Moyer.jpg
Doug Moyer, President of Sentara RMH

DOUG MOYER: It's hard to see, you know, what we'll see at that point in time. If our census is still high, we'll probably push it out another week.

He said that allows the hospital to reassign staff to care for COVID patients, although at this time they have not had to convert any additional physical space to COVID wards. As of Monday, Sentara RMH had 59 COVID patients, which accounted for about one-third of their total hospitalized patients.

MOYER: At this time, even with where our projections are showing that we will go, you know, we'll be within our licensed bed capacity … I don't think it will be outside of our capabilities, but it is an extremely taxing event when you get that many COVID patients in the building.

According to a press release issued Monday, Augusta Health had 40 COVID patients, and their ICU and respiratory care units are staying at or near capacity, although they are still able to perform elective surgeries at this time. Twelve people have died of COVID there over the past week.

When it comes to vaccine efficacy against the omicron variant, UVA's Dr. William Petri said he's looking at data from the United Kingdom.

Bill Petri
Sanjay Suchak/Sanjay Suchak/U.Va. University C
Office of University Communicati
Dr. William Petri, an infectious disease expert at UVA Health

WILLIAM PETRI: … because they're a little bit ahead of us with omicron. And what they've found is that unboosted, the mRNA vaccines are providing about 30% protection from infection, and that goes up to 70% with a booster. The Moderna booster seems to be providing long-term protection at that 70% level, and the Pfizer booster appears to be drifting off a bit like at about four months or so. Protection from hospitalization is much better with the vaccines, with or without the boosters, really. And what we've seen is that being vaccinated in itself reduces your risk of being hospitalized or dying from COVID about tenfold.

Healthcare providers at both UVA and Sentara RMH urged those with mild COVID symptoms to go somewhere other than an emergency department to get tested – such as a pharmacy, family doctor, urgent care center, or by using an at-home rapid test. If you do test positive, and your symptoms worsen, Petri offered advice on when it's time to go to the hospital.

PETRI: Shortness of breath is the thing that is probably most concerning. You can get a home pulse oximeter … the drug stores sell them, or you can get it on Amazon, and you can follow your oxygen saturation, and it should be about 95%.

He said if it falls to the very low 90s or high 80s, and you're feeling short of breath, hospitalization may be necessary to provide supplemental oxygen and intravenous COVID treatments.

Randi B. Hagi first joined the WMRA team in 2019 as a freelance reporter. Her writing and photography have been featured in The Harrisonburg Citizen, where she previously served as the assistant editor; as well as The Mennonite; Mennonite World Review; and Eastern Mennonite University's Crossroads magazine.