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Area hospitals warn of capacity issues as Omicron variant dishes out new wave of cases

by Kate Evans & Kate Shunney

Officials with Valley Health systems and hospitals in Cumberland and Hagerstown have all asked area residents to take steps to reduce pressure on Emergency Departments and hospital wings as new waves of Omicron-fueled COVID cases hit the region.

Valley Health’s six hospitals, which include War Memorial Hospital in Berkeley Springs, are currently treating 145 patients for COVID-19, about 85% of whom are unvaccinated.

According to Iyad Sabbagh, MD, Chief Physician Executive, the most severely ill patients are unvaccinated, underscoring the importance of COVID-19 vaccination and boosters.

“The data and scientific evidence overwhelmingly points to the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccination,” said Dr. Sabbagh. “I implore residents to get vaccinated or boosted, continue to follow masking recommendations and consider implementing social distancing measures. The Omicron variant we are now confronting is more contagious than previous versions of this virus and is spreading rapidly in our community.”

Morgan has 215 active cases

Morgan County’s number of active cases of COVID-19 has jumped to 215 cases as of Monday, January 3.  On December 20, there were 175 cases.

West Virginia’s DHHR COVID Alert Map as of Tuesday, January 4. Red indicates high levels of virus transmission.

The number of county deaths from COVID did not rise over the holidays, and remains at 53.

Public health officials have said the Omicron variant of COVID is very highly contagious, but appears to produce milder symptoms that previous variants.

As of Monday, January 3, there were 185 new cases of COVID-19 in Morgan County.

War Memorial Hospital’s Extended Care Facility has one active COVID-19 case in a resident and one active COVID-19 case in staff reported on Monday, January 3 in the Department of Health and Human Resources COVID-19 dashboard.  Stonerise Healthcare in Berkeley Springs has no current COVID-19 cases.

A total of 2,974 county residents have been infected with the respiratory virus since test tracking began in March 2020.

Some 31.5% Morgan County residents are considered fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Around 9.5% of residents have gotten their COVID-19 booster shot.

At least one dose of the pediatric COVID-19 vaccine has been administered to 14.62% of county children age 5-11.  Some 8.94% of children age 5-11 are considered fully vaccinated.

Morgan County transmission of COVID-19 remains at the high level, so masks are required in county school facilities and on buses.

Hospitals make appeals

Hospitals in Hagerstown and Cumberland are asking the public to help curb capacity problems as COVID and other seasonal illnesses are sending more patients to their doors.

An added care tent set up outside UPMC Western Maryland in Cumberland over the weekend to handle overflow patients.

UPMC Western Maryland has set up a medical tent outside their Emergency department doors to “expand care capability” for those coming for emergency treatment.

“This tent is well equipped and will be staffed to help accommodate our patients,” the hospital said. It was up and running on Monday, January 3.

Hospital officials are urging patients with minor illnesses or injuries to seek care at their Urgent Care centers. They are also asking residents to get COVID testing at alternative locations, either at pharmacies or public health sites.

Officials with Meritus Health in Hagerstown were broadcasting a similar message this week, urging residents to seek medical care at their doctor’s office, an Urgent Care center or clinic in order to reduce pressure on the hospital’s Emergency Room and staff.

Patient visitation at Valley Health hospitals remains at “Level Red” to reduce the risk of transmission between visitors, patients and caregivers. “Social visiting” is not allowed, and those accompanying patients to outpatient appointments will be asked to wait in their cars.

Testing pressure

The region is also seeing a shortage of testing resources – at-home test kits were heavily used by those gathering for the holidays and are unavailable at some local retailers. Long lines have been the norm at testing sites in the region.  Some testing is available at pharmacies by appointment, or drive-through service.

Valley Health officials have urged people those with mild symptoms not to go to the Emergency Department of their hospitals.

“All of our hospital care teams remain ready to provide emergency and acute treatment for patients with illnesses and injuries of all kinds,” said Sabbagh. “But we need the community’s help to safeguard resources. If you are having symptoms like shortness of breath or chest pain – which may indicate COVID-19 and many other critical illnesses – you should call 911 or seek care in an emergency department. But if you need testing, please don’t call 911.”

New isolation rules

The CDC on December 27 shortened the recommended quarantine and isolation periods for the public.

People who have tested positive for COVID should stay home (isolate) for 5 days. If a person has no symptoms or symptoms are resolving after 5 days (without fever for 24 hours), the isolation period can be over.

Those who are ill are asked to continue to wear a face mask for an additional 5 days around others to minimize the risk of infecting them.

The change in guidance is due to most COVID-19 transmission occurring early in the illness — 1-2 days before the onset of symptoms and 2-3 days after, according to the CDC press release.

Quarantine

The CDC also updated the recommended quarantine period for anyone in the general public who is exposed to COVID-19.

For individuals who are unvaccinated or more than six months out from their second Pfizer or Moderna COVID vaccine dose or two months from their Johnson and Johnson dose and not yet boosted, the CDC now recommends quarantine for 5 days followed by strict mask use for an additional 5 days.

If a 5-day quarantine is not feasible, a person exposed to COVID-19 should wear a well-fitting mask when around others for 10 days after exposure.

Individuals who have received their booster shot do not need to quarantine following an exposure, but should wear a mask for 10 days after the exposure.  For all individuals exposed, a test for COVID-19 at day 5 after exposure is advised. If symptoms occur, individuals should immediately quarantine until a negative test confirms that their symptoms aren’t attributed to COVID-19.

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