West Virginia hospital leaders warn system is already strained and could get worse

West Virginia hospital leaders are warning that projections show the state approaching the highest number of covid-19 hospitalizations since the pandemic began.

Emergency rooms have more patients than they have staff to care for them, the hospital leaders said, resulting in long wait times, patients being treated in hallways and waiting rooms and diversions to other medical providers.

“As a state and a nation, we are in this crisis together, and although there have been multiple calls for action in the past we need your help more than ever to ensure health care services are available for everyone who needs them,” wrote leaders from West Virginia’s community hospitals in a statement released Monday.

Hospital leaders expressed an ongoing worry that more stress from a winter wave of covid-19 could be combined with high numbers of patients with flu, heart disease, cancer and trauma. They described a system near its breaking point with health care workers mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted.

They noted that the strain extends to emergency medical services and other care sites that might not be able to respond as quickly as usual.

“As the pressure on hospitals and EMS increases further, we risk facing increasing delays and challenges in accessing care for everyone who needs emergency services and inpatient hospital care,” the hospital leaders wrote.

The hospital leaders advised getting vaccinations or booster shots. They also advised carefully considering where healthcare is sought, suggesting primary care offices or urgent care for many conditions. But the hospital leaders were clear that emergency departments are still correct to treat stroke symptoms, chest pain, difficulty breathing or significant injury.

That concern about whether hospitals will be able to keep up with demands has been discussed for weeks by officials advising Gov. Jim Justice.

Dr. Clay Marsh

West Virginia’s focus must include helping hospitals maintain their capacity for patients, Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s top pandemic adviser, said last week in a statewide briefing.

“We know that unvaccinated people, or people who are eligible for boosters who have not gotten boosted, are driving this new surge in covid-19 cases that is starting to overwhelm hospitals,” Marsh said. West Virginia listed 615 covid-19 cases in hospitals today, a number that has been rising in recent weeks.

The state hit a high number of covid-19 patients in hospitals at 1,012 on Sept. 24.

West Virginia currently lists 209 covid-19 patients in intensive care units and 116 needing ventilators to breathe.

In a letter distributed last week, a range of West Virginia health leaders urged state residents to seek out vaccination or a booster. “The spread of variants has contributed to recent increases in hospitalizations and deaths in West Virginia,” those health leaders wrote.

That letter was sent by groups including the West Virginia Association of Local Health Departments, the West Virginia Health Care Association, West Virginia State Medical Association, West Virginia Pharmacists Association and more.

State figures show 53 percent of West Virginia’s vaccine-eligible population, ages 5 and above, is considered fully-vaccinated. West Virginia’s seven-day average of vaccinations has been flat at best and generally downward.

The nation’s top infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci, on Sunday described a tough few weeks or months ahead. “We are going to see a significant stress in some regions of the country on the hospital system, particularly in those areas where you have a low level of vaccination,” Fauci said on CNN’s State of the Union.

During a White House press briefing on Friday, coronavirus response coordinator Jeffrey Zients emphasized that vaccinations and boosters tend to fend off the virus or at least result in mild conditions. The alternative could be far worse for the unvaccinated, he said.

“We are intent on not letting Omicron disrupt work and school for the vaccinated.  You’ve done the right thing, and we will get through this,” Zients said. “For the unvaccinated, you’re looking at a winter of severe illness and death for yourselves, your families, and the hospitals you may soon overwhelm.”





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