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May 26, 2022

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Omicron COVID-19 variant straining Clark County hospitals

Health officials reiterate importance of vaccinations

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:

The omicron variant of COVID-19 is rampant in Clark County.

Between Jan. 13 and Jan. 20, Clark County saw an average of about 1,379 new COVID-19 cases per day, the highest rate since the pandemic began — but still a likely undercount due to unreported at-home tests.

Predictive modelling from Oregon Health and Science University suggests the omicron wave will peak at the end of January. But according to Clark County Public Health officials, it’s still too early to tell when the surge might peak in Clark County.

“The rate of increase may be slowing, based on the data we currently have, but that could change as additional cases are reported,” said Clark County Public Health deputy health director Steven Krager.

Another difficulty in predicting when the surge might peak is the incomplete data due to unreported at-home tests, he said.

But one thing is certain: A surge in cases is followed by a surge in hospitalizations. That’s proving to be true even for the highly contagious but less virulent omicron variant.

“Hospitalizations in Clark County are rising and will likely continue to increase in the coming weeks,” Krager said. “Hospital occupancy is currently very high, with 97 percent of beds and 98 percent of ICU beds occupied. We can’t predict whether hospitalizations will reach capacity, but the state and local hospitals are taking steps to preserve hospital capacity. So far it appears hospitals are weathering this surge, but it’s certainly stressing the health care system.”

The worst-case scenario is overwhelmed hospitals, leading to crisis standards of care.

“That’s another way of saying rationing, where we have to think about some people getting care and other people not,” Krager said.

According to Randy Querin, a spokesperson for PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center, the surge in patients is causing strain, but preventative measures taken by the hospital have diminished the impact.

The hospital is currently at 89 percent capacity, which is lower than during the peak of the delta wave. There are currently 89 inpatients at the hospital, the highest total yet for the omicron wave, Querin said.

“PeaceHealth Southwest has done an excellent job of planning ahead to make sure we have a full supply of needed equipment, including personal protective equipment,” he said. “The one resource that remains challenging is our most important — our people.”

Due to the omicron variant’s high rate of infection, hospital staff are calling out at greater rates then at previous points during the pandemic, leading to staffing shortages.

“Thanks to PeaceHealth’s mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy, these caregivers are generally experiencing mild symptoms and are able to return to work quickly in alignment with the CDC return to work guidelines,” Querin said.

While crisis standards of care have not been necessary in Clark County yet, measures have been taken that limit care.

Gov. Jay Inslee issued a statewide emergency order on Jan. 13 that temporarily restricts nonurgent health care services, procedures and surgeries that are performed in hospitals in an effort ease the load on hospitals.

“Prior to Gov. Inslee’s recent proclamation, PeaceHealth had already made the difficult decision to cancel nonurgent surgeries, allowing us the flexibility to reallocate staff to assist in areas of more urgent need,” Querin said. “We monitor this situation on an ongoing basis and are hopeful that, when the current omicron wave subsides, we can move quickly to reschedule these procedures.”

Querin said that PeaceHealth’s COVID-19 Incident Command team monitors PeaceHealth Southwest’s COVID-19 situation in real time, allowing hospital staff to adjust as needed to respond quickly and effectively to changes in circumstance.

A comment was not available from a Legacy Salmon Creek representative Friday. However, Legacy Health Systems recently launched a “COVID-19 omicron response” webpage that provides details about Legacy Health’s situation.

According to the page, there are currently 201 COVID-19 inpatients across Legacy Health’s six hospitals, with 32 patients in the ICU due to COVID-19.

According to Clark County Public Health officials and hospital representatives, the best way to help hospitals is to get vaccinated and boosted if possible.

In Clark County, 462 deaths have occurred since Jan 17, 2021, when vaccines became available, and 76 percent of those deaths were among the unvaccinated, according to data released Friday by Public Health.

Additionally, hospital officials ask that people not visit the emergency room if they have mild COVID-19 symptoms or need a COVID-19 test. Walk-in COVID-19 tests are not available at the emergency room, and unless people are having trouble breathing, coughing uncontrollably, vomiting, experiencing chest pain or noticing that symptoms are rapidly worsening, they should visit urgent care or their primary care doctor instead of the emergency room.

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