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Crowded hospitals prepare for omicron surge

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Rogue Valley hospitals are preparing for a projected spike in COVID-19 cases while still caring for a high volume of sick patients.
Rogue Valley hospitals already under strain

With hospitals already under strain and another COVID-19 spike looming, doctors are urging Rogue Valley residents to do everything they can to stay well and uninjured.

“This is not a good time to fall sick. Hospitals are understaffed, and there’s a shortage of beds. The public needs to do anything they can to avoid getting sick by getting vaccinated and following safety precautions,” said Dr. Somnath Ghosh, vice president of medical affairs for Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center.

In addition to getting vaccinated against COVID-19, people need to do everything from driving safely and wearing their seatbelts to taking their prescription medications on schedule, he said.

“If you need hospital care, you could be stuck in the emergency department waiting for a bed — or maybe we won’t be able to bring you in,” Ghosh said.

Asante has raised its hospital admission thresholds, he said.

“We’re stocking up on supplies and looking at all areas of the hospital where patients can be safely cared for,” Ghosh said.

Asante has canceled surgeries except in cases where a patient could die within 48 hours without an operation, he said.

“We are forced to wait until a patient’s condition deteriorates and it becomes an emergency,” Ghosh said.

He said the delays are impacting a broad cross-section of patients.

“What worries me tremendously is how many surgeries are being delayed. We have a large backlog of patients who are not getting the care they need. It’s appalling that people can’t get treatment for cancer or a heart condition. All elective surgeries are on hold,” Ghosh said.

He said many cancer patients need to have biopsies done, but those are being delayed.

“Our surgeons and cardiologists are trying their best. They’re trying to advocate for their patients, but you can imagine the angst they feel,” Ghosh said.

The Asante health system includes Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford, Ashland Community Hospital and Three Rivers Medical Center in Grants Pass.

Ghosh said the system has 80 patients who could be discharged from hospitals, but Asante can’t get them spots in nursing homes and rehabilitation centers.

“We have patients with tumors growing in them, while we have 80 patients in hospital beds who don’t need to be there,” he said.

Asante officials are reaching out to state agencies asking for more help with the discharge problem, which has been an issue throughout the pandemic.

A nationwide labor shortage, especially in health care, is hitting hospitals and making it harder for nursing homes to attract workers. Nursing homes need to be able to pay more to get and keep workers, but Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates are low, Ghosh said.

Asante is exploring all options, including paying nursing homes to take patients who need to be discharged from hospitals, he said.

Hospitals are also under strain from patients who can’t get dialysis out in the community because of a labor shortage at dialysis centers. People whose kidneys have failed need hours-long dialysis treatments to filter wastes and toxins from their blood.

Ghosh said Asante is taking care of 10 patients who are stuck in hospitals because they can’t get outpatient dialysis.

He said the problem is widespread and not unique to the Rogue Valley.

Ghosh said hospital workers are already working overtime to handle the high volume of patients.

The Rogue Valley saw its highest COVID-19 spike ever during a summer and fall surge fueled by the delta variant of the virus. That spike subsided, but COVID-19 hospitalizations remain as high as they were during a surge last winter.

"Hospitalizations are still at a level similar to last winter’s surge — and we haven’t yet seen the effects of omicron,“ said Julie Denney, senior communication manager for Providence Medford Medical Center.

The summer and fall COVID-19 surge peaked Sept. 1, with 1,187 people hospitalized statewide. The number of COVID-19 patients currently is over 400.

Oregon Health & Science University predicts the spread of the highly contagious omicron variant will push statewide hospitalizations to 1,250 — if people take safety precautions like getting vaccinated and getting booster shots.

Numbers could spike to 1,700 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Oregon if the public doesn’t help, OHSU predicts.

A wave of infections will accelerate in mid-January and peak in mid-February, according to the OHSU forecast.

The omicron variant generally causes less severe illness than the delta variant, but it’s more contagious and could infect a wider pool of people.

“Reducing the wave of severe illness will be critical as people not only need hospital beds for COVID-19, but to maintain access for everything else: strokes, heart attacks, vehicle crashes and other life-threatening conditions that demand care in a hospital,” OHSU said in its forecast briefing. “During the most recent surge of illness from the delta variant, people had to wait hours and sometimes days to receive necessary care, often in waiting rooms, conference rooms and hallways.”

Jackson and Josephine counties were hard hit by the delta surge, with hospitalization rates spiking higher than most areas of the state.

“What concerns me is Jackson and Josephine counties make up 10% of the population but we had about 20% of the hospitalized patients during the delta surge due to low vaccination rates in our area,” Ghosh said.

He said recent widespread COVID-19 infection in the Rogue Valley could confer some immunity against the virus, but that doesn’t offer the best protection.

Research has show vaccination provides stronger protection than being infected with the virus, and comes with far fewer risks.

Emerging research on the omicron variant indicates getting a two-dose series of COVID-19 shots followed by a booster offers the best protection. Omicron is better at evading the immune response than previous variants.

A two-dose series provides about 35% protection against omicron, while a two-dose series followed by a booster shot boosts effectiveness to 75%, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Oregon has set a goal to have 1 million more people get a booster shot by the end of January.

Ghosh said Asante made the tough decision to require all in-person workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to protect workers and patients.

Providence Medford Medical Center went a different route, allowing workers to get a religious or medical exception and stay on the job while wearing protective gear.

Like Asante, Providence is dealing with challenges like not being able to find enough nursing home openings for patients awaiting discharge from the hospital, Denney said.

Providence Medford Medical Center hasn’t postponed all elective surgeries at this point, but some patients could see delays, she said.

“We are evaluating the situation daily to see how many elective surgeries and procedures our facility can accommodate,” she said. “This means postponing surgeries when our inpatient capacity does not leave enough staffed beds for new patients.”

Denney said the public can help by getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

“We know from the delta surge that people who contract COVID are far less likely to experience hospitalization or death if they are vaccinated. We urge anyone who is eligible to receive the vaccine — including a booster — to do so,” she said.

She said Providence is using the knowledge it’s gained from the pandemic and two previous surges to prepare for the projected omicron surge.

“We are here and ready to care for our patients,” Denney said.

She said everyone can do their part to help.

“Our caregivers have been working very hard through the pandemic. They are true heroes. We implore everyone in the community to help them by following public health guidelines — wash your hands, wear a mask, avoid indoor gatherings and get vaccinated,” Denney said.

A mass vaccination site offering free COVID-19 shots, including boosters, is at The Merrick, 200 N. Riverside Ave., Medford. Hours of operation are noon to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays.

The site is a walk-thru location and no appointment is needed.

For information on more places to get vaccinated in Jackson County, visit jacksoncountyor.org/hhs/COVID-19/Vaccine-Appointments/where-to-get-vaccinated-in-jackson-county.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.