Area hospitals brace for Omicron surge’s impact

Similar to steps it took in March 2020, Sentara is postponing non-essential surgeries to cope with the surge in patients with the Omicron variant on COVID-19. (File photo from March 2020)

UPDATE: This article was updated at 11:33 a.m. Monday, Jan. 10, to include the latest numbers of COVID-19 patients at Sentara RMH.

By Stephanie Spernak, contributor

Hospitals in the Valley are grappling with the Omicron variant surge, which has nearly filled up Augusta Health’s ICU and COVID units and prompted Sentara RMH on Friday to postpone non-essential surgeries.

Lisa Schwenk, director of public relations at Fishersville-based Augusta Health, said Sunday that the hospital’s “ICU and COVID units are running at or near full capacity” with 43 COVID patients. Roughly 70-80% of the hospital’s COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated, she said. 

Sentara Healthcare, with 12 hospitals in Virginia and North Carolina, saw its COVID patients triple from 200 to 600 within 10 days — a steep spike not seen in earlier waves of the pandemic, said Jordan Asher, Sentara’s executive vice president and chief physician executive, during a virtual press conference Thursday.

“The emergency rooms across the Sentara system are as busy as he has ever seen them” since the start of the pandemic, Asher said. Most COVID admissions are unvaccinated, he added.

In response to the surge in Omicron cases — the latest variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus — Sentara Healthcare management announced Friday that it would postpone non-essential surgeries and related procedures at all its hospitals beginning Monday.

As of Monday morning, Sentara RMH reported having 59 confirmed COVID-19 patients, which is more than a third of its inpatient admissions. Sentara Northern Virginia Medical, with 91 confirmed COVID-19 patients representing almost half of all inpatients, has the highest number of COVID-19 patients in Sentara’s Western and Peninsula regions.

Mike Gentry, Sentara Healthcare executive vice president and chief operating officer, said in the announcement that the hospital has to “balance the urgent need to care for large numbers of COVID-19 patients with what is being asked of our dedicated staff.”

“We cannot care for our community without first supporting our team members as they so expertly manage this large number of patients,” Gentry said.

At Augusta Health, Schwenk said hospital officials “constantly assess patients for appropriate internal transfer to other units to make beds available for new patients arriving.” 

“We also can activate surge beds,” she said.   

When overwhelmed by a flood of patients, hospitals also can divert people without life-threatening conditions arriving by ambulance to other hospitals. Augusta Health did not need to do that over the weekend, Schwenk said.    

Alyssa Pacheco, Sentara RMH spokesperson, confirmed RMH was not on diversion status over the weekend, which is when hospital emergency rooms typically see the highest traffic.

There is no requirement that hospitals publicly announce their diversion status. Hospitals send diversion alerts to EMT and ambulance services.

Schwenk also said Augusta is conducting hundreds of COVID tests at their facilities and seeing a positivity rate of about 35%, which she said was “quite high for a community.”  

But the surge isn’t just isolated to the Valley. 

“COVID-19 hospitalizations are up nearly 200 percent across Virginia,” said Julian Walker, vice president of communications at the Virginia Hospital & Healthcare Association in a statement Friday.  

Fueled by the highly contagious Omicron variant, this wave also can be disruptive to medical care if health care professionals are infected and unable to work at a time when COVID-19 hospitalizations are reaching the highest levels seen so far.

“Hospitals across Virginia continue to make operational adjustments related to things like visitation restrictions, scaling back or postponing non-emergency procedures, adjustments to staff deployment, and more to respond to the current and evolving circumstances of the pandemic,” Walker said.   

Asher, the Sentara chief physician executive, also said the highly contagious nature of Omicron threatens health care workers and the hospital’s ability to manage staffing levels. 

The vast majority of Sentara staff are vaccinated, follow infection protocols, and use personal protective equipment (PPE) at the hospitals, he said. But the high levels of infections in the community means that staff are more exposed, Asher said. 

“We have all heard that those who are vaccinated and boosted might not get as sick,” Asher said. But the fact that Omicron is so infectious means that the overall number of infected is higher because of the “sheer strength of the virus,” including health care workers in the community, he said. 

Both Sentara and Augusta Health officials urged community members to seek vaccinations and boosters to protect themselves and others in the community — including health care professionals. Asher also said people should stay home if they are sick and follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 guidelines.  

Asher said health care professionals in the Sentara system have done an “unbelievable job caring for those in need” throughout the pandemic and they are now at higher risk of getting sick. 

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