Clark County hospitals are slammed with people testing positive for COVID-19, and public health officials worry that they will soon be overwhelmed.
“We’re seeing a very rapid rise in COVID-19 hospitalizations in Clark County,” said Dr. Steven Krager, deputy health officer for Clark County Public Health. “Our hospitals are under strain for many different reasons, and this COVID-19 surge unfortunately is going to make all of that worse.”
According to Krager, hospitalizations statewide due to COVID-19 are eclipsing what was seen during last summer’s delta surge.
“That’s very concerning,” he said. “We’re still trying to protect our health care system.”
But as omicron spreads widely throughout the community, many people are wondering what to do.
What should you do if you have an exposure, but can’t locate a test? What if you can’t find an appointment for a PCR test after you test positive with an at-home test? How long should you quarantine after an exposure? What kind of masks are appropriate? If you experience symptoms, should you visit the hospital?
Here is what Clark County Public Health recommends you do to keep yourself and your community safe.
Testing and quarantining
If you experience COVID-19 symptoms and cannot access testing or are waiting for an appointment, you should stay home and away from others unless you need urgent medical care. If you test positive using an at-home COVID-19 test, you do not need to confirm the result by getting another test.
“With a home test, if you test positive, the chances of false positives are actually really rare,” Krager said.
If you test positive or are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms but cannot locate a test, you should isolate at home for at least five days, day one being the first full day after symptoms develop. You can come out of isolation after five full days if you’ve been fever-free for 24 hours without using fever-reducing medicine.
After ending isolation, you should continue to wear a well-fitted mask when around others, ideally a respirator like a KN95 or N95 if possible, for another full five days. During this time, you should avoid traveling and being around people who are at high risk for severe illness.
According to Krager, the current COVID-19 case rate data isn’t as good as it used to be because testing is difficult to access. Additionally, at-home test results often go unreported to Public Health.
“We know our true case numbers are actually quite a bit higher than what’s being reported,” Krager said.
But testing is still an important tool when it is accessible, Krager said, especially for people who work around vulnerable people, like caregivers.
Masks are a good way to slow the spread of COVID-19, and people should wear masks anytime they are around people they do not live with, according to Public Health. Respirator masks, like N95 and KN95, provide the most protection, but cloth and surgical masks still help prevent virus transmission.
Public Health recommends wearing masks properly by ensuring that they cover the nose and mouth and fit snugly against the face. If you don’t have a respirator mask, double-masking can provide extra protection. Cloth masks with multiple layers provide more protection. Single-layer masks like bandanas and gaiters are less effective.
Krager said he hopes to see a feeling of solidarity return to the community around mask wearing, especially as this surge threatens to overwhelm hospitals.
“A lot of people have had the opportunity to be vaccinated, but there are still a lot of people who have not,” Krager said. “Children under 5 have not had the opportunity to be vaccinated. There are people who are severely immunocompromised, and the vaccine may not work as well for them. There are people who have been fully vaccinated and boosted but are still very frail and medically complex. Those are the people we need to be thinking about. We can’t just ask those people to not participate in society. And when we put on a mask ourselves, we are protecting those people.”
Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect yourself against severe COVID-19 illness and hospitalization, according to Public Health. Everyone 5 years and older is eligible to get vaccinated. Booster doses are also recommended for those eligible. People can get a booster dose five months after receiving a second Pfizer or Moderna shot, and two months after a Johnson and Johnson vaccine.
According to Public Health data, most people who experience severe illness and need to be hospitalized due to COVID-19 are unvaccinated.
Clark County Public Health recommends people avoid large indoor gatherings right now, especially those who are unvaccinated. For those who are vaccinated, wearing a mask, maintaining 6 feet of distance from others and frequent handwashing is recommended.
Krager said people should do a risk assessment whenever they consider getting together with a group of people. If there will be people who are unable to get vaccinated or who are vulnerable, gathering right now isn’t the best idea. But if everyone is healthy and vaccinated, you might be willing to take that risk, even if contracting omicron remains a possibility.
When to visit the hospital
Emergency rooms at PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center and Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center are currently overwhelmed with patients experiencing mild COVID-19 symptoms and people seeking COVID-19 tests. This is causing delays for patients with other needs.
Public Health officials advise people with COVID-19 to not visit the emergency room unless they are experiencing severe symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, vomiting, out-of-control coughing or chest pain. People with mild COVID-19 symptoms can find treatment at primary care doctors and urgent care facilities.
Walk-in COVID-19 tests are not available at the emergency rooms. Those seeking tests should visit doh.wa.gov to find testing sites in their area.
According to Krager, it is too soon to tell whether this surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations is at its peak.
“From our data right now, we haven’t seen a slowing that might suggest a crest,” he said. “It doesn’t mean it’s not going to come in the next few days. It’s certainly possible. But right now, it’s too early to say.”
In the meantime, Public Health officials ask that you follow these guidelines to help slow the spread of the omicron variant and to keep hospitals from reaching capacity — a dire situation in which hospitals would be required to ration care.
“Local hospitals are getting busier as COVID-19 case numbers climb,” said Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County health officer and Public Health director. “We should all be taking precautions to keep ourselves and our loved ones healthy and help reduce the strain on our health care system.”