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May 22, 2022

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Clark County Health Officer on COVID cases: ‘We’re not heading in a good direction’

5 percent of PeaceHealth staff on leave due to lack of vaccination

By , Columbian staff writer

Local doctors and public health officials issued a dire warning Friday morning as Clark County COVID-19 case rates rose to a new pandemic-high this week. 

“We’re not heading in a good direction,” Clark County Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick said. “In the last week in Clark County, we’ve averaged 225 new cases each day. And two months ago, we were averaging 21 cases a day — so more than 10 times the case rate two months ago.”

Melnick attributed the skyrocketing cases to the low vaccination rate in Clark County of 59 percent and the highly transmissible delta variant, which he said accounts for 90 percent of the cases in the state.

Leaders at Vancouver’s PeaceHealth Southwest and Legacy Salmon Creek medical centers described their facilities as bursting at the seams and stacking up with long emergency room wait times. Both hospitals have also canceled elective surgeries. 

Those admitted with COVID-19 symptoms continue to be largely unvaccinated, officials at both hospitals said, and they shared stories of people expressing regret for not getting vaccinated from ICU beds. 

Dr. Kelley Pratt at Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center encouraged those looking for a COVID-19 test to go to local drive-thru sites, urgent care or other testing sites instead of the emergency room.

Dr. Lawrence Neville, chief medical officer for PeaceHealth’s Columbia Network, announced that all bedside providers at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center and Longview’s PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center are vaccinated. 

He said 95 percent of hospital staff got vaccinated by PeaceHealth’s deadline. The other 5 percent have been placed on administrative leave. Those with medical or religious exemptions can use paid time off or are on unpaid leave, while those without exemptions are on unpaid leave. Neville said that despite placing employees on leave, PeaceHealth is not facing a staffing shortage.

“At the end of the day, our primary ethical duty is to keep our patients safe and our community safe, and we felt we had no choice but to take this hard stance, and I’m really proud of the way we did it,” Neville said. “We did it with a great deal of compassion — a great deal of due process and thoughtfulness. And again, that ensures that if you have to be a patient or your loved one has to be a patient, it will be a vaccinated person taking care of you.”

PeaceHealth’s hospitals have been much busier than usual at this time of year, Neville said, with an “enormous number of COVID patients.” 

The Vancouver hospital has 304 patients at a time when it usually admits about 280 or fewer patients. Of those patients, 75 are COVID-19 positive, and 20 of the COVID-19 patients are in the ICU. 

PeaceHealth St. John Medical Center — Cowlitz County’s only hospital — has 140 patients when it usually has around 90 at this time of year, according to Neville. It has 62 COVID-19 patients, 16 of whom are in the ICU.

Both hospitals have set up additional ICU units. 

Pediatrician Dr. Devon Ebbing said that as kids return to school, she’s seeing an increase in other respiratory viruses, in addition to COVID-19, which she called “unnerving.”

“I spoke to my colleagues in the area, a number of general pediatricians, and they’re all seeing what I’m seeing, which is a lot more positive cases in the kids who are too young to be vaccinated or in the 12 and up who are unvaccinated,” she said.

The warning came ahead of Labor Day weekend, and officials fear the effects of holiday gatherings. 

“I used to enjoy holidays, but throughout the pandemic, every time a holiday came up, I got a feeling of dread in terms of gatherings,” Melnick said. 

Melnick said he’s particularly concerned about the smaller, more intimate gatherings where people are less likely to take precautions and more likely to be relaxed with close friends and family. 

“We are mostly seeing kids get sick — particularly the younger kids — get sick from an adult in their bubble, and the vast majority from unvaccinated adults in their bubble,” Ebbing said. “And so we’re definitely seeing that after gatherings. I’ve seen an uptick in cases after family funerals, where people are just not keeping their guard up.”

Pratt said he’s also seeing a lot of cases traced back to events, such as weddings and birthday parties. 

“There is a tendency to want to be around people in an intimate way — to touch them, you want to hug people, you want to sit next to people that you care about,” Pratt said. “But the reality is, is that proximity is still putting you at risk, and the virus really doesn’t care whether you’re a family member or not.”

Officials are also concerned about the high case rates heading into fall and flu season. Ebbing said the more severe cases she’s seeing are in cases of co-infection of COVID-19 and another virus. 

“All of us are also very concerned about influenza plus COVID,” Ebbing said. “We don’t know what that looks like and what that’s going to look like in kids. We know that kids and older adults are higher risk of influenza, so for the kids who are not eligible for the COVID vaccine, when the influenza vaccine is available, I strongly — all of us strongly encourage having that protection on board as well, and kids six months and up can get vaccinated against influenza.” 

Melnick said Public Health doesn’t have current plans to reinstitute any mandates on businesses, saying it would be difficult to enforce with so much pandemic fatigue. He also said that Clark County does not currently have any plans to implement an outdoor mask mandate.


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