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Upstate New York hospitals already pushed to their limits as the Omicron variant spreads

Staff care for a new arrival to the University of Vermont Medical Center Intensive Care Unit
UVM Health Network
Press person
Staff care for a new arrival to the University of Vermont Medical Center Intensive Care Unit

Upstate New York hospitals already facing staffing shortages are being pushed to the limit during the latest surge of COVID-19 cases — largely among the unvaccinated.

Cases have increased an average of 5 percent in New York in the last week. There were more than 11,000 new COVID cases reported Wednesday. A day later, Governor Kathy Hochul confirmed the state’s first cases of the new Omicron variant.

Governor Hochul signed an executive order November 26th to limit non-essential procedures for hospitals or health systems with limited capacity. In the Capital Region, hospitals have an average of only 10 percent of hospital beds open. The North County’s hospitals are at 15 percent and the Mohawk Valley has 19 percent of hospital beds open.

On Wednesday, the Democrat also deployed 60 National Guard medical teams to various long-term care facilities around the state in an scene reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic.

Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital Infectious Disease Specialist Keith Collins says the Plattsburgh-based hospital is better prepared for the increase in COVID cases than it was at the start of the pandemic.

“The whole thing with COVID is, our hospital has made preparations, at least here at CVPH all long. We have backup plans if the hospital really needs somewhere, we can open up more beds if we had to have it, for instance, ICU, but it would be at the expense of other services and hopefully it won't come to that," he said.

Chaplain Valley Physicians Hospital is a part of the University of Vermont Health Network. According to data released by the governor’s office, there are three UVM hospitals in the North Country with less than 10 percent of beds available – including Champlain Valley, Elizabethtown Community Hospital and Alice Hyde Medical Center.

Collins says they continue to monitor the Omicron variant, but much is not known about it yet.

“I think we have to be concerned which is what the World Health Organization says this is - it's a variant a concern. But, I don't think we yet have to think that the sky is falling. I don't think we know that," he said. "We don't know enough yet about this variant to know what it really means or doesn't mean. And I think, again, a lot of it depends not only how contagious it is, but how sick does this particular variant make someone?”

During a COVID briefing Thursday, new State Department of Health Commissioner Mary Bassett echoed his warning.

“It's not even a week since the South African scientist both talked about and sounded the alarm about this variant. It does seem to be highly contagious. In South Africa, there has been a rapid increase in positive tests, but it seems to have resulted in milder illness. But, nobody really knows for sure," the Hochul appointee said.

The North Country region also has one of the highest number of COVID cases in the state, with a seven-day average of about 10 percent testing positive in the last three days. The statewide average is about 4 percent.

Earlier in November, St. Mary’s Hospital in Amsterdam was able to begin elective surgeries once again. But by December, it appeared on Hochul’s list of hospitals with less than 10 percent of beds available, which means it falls under her executive order to cease elective surgeries.

Last month, St. Mary’s Hospital President and CEO Scott Bruce said in a public video that the hospital has had to halt some services.

“We had to temporarily close one of our sites that's over in Charlton.  We're actually in the process of converting it from urgent care to urgent care and primary care. But, that site will be open soon and it's given us an opportunity to bring staff back to some of our busy areas," Bruce said.

St. Mary’s Amsterdam Family Health Center’s Dr. Mahvash Majeed says the region’s relatively low vaccination rates and the easily transferrable Delta strain are contributing to its COVID troubles. About 70 percent of the region’s population has received at least one dose, compared to the statewide average of 86 percent.

"After last winter's peak in Fulton and Montgomery Counties, we saw some hope and a decline of the number of illnesses because of the vaccine becoming available to our community. But, however, with the Delta variant, which is a much more easily transmissible variant and some waning immunity, the number of cases increased. And we're now in what seems to be a pretty significant second wave, with many more people getting sick. And the vaccine rates are also lagging behind. So, we're not really at the percentages we should be to be able to protect our community, as well," she said.

The Capital Region has not been immune to the bed shortage, either. Dr. Steven Hanks, the chief clinical officer and chief operating officer at St. Peter’s Hospital in Albany, says so far the facility has been able to provide all necessary emergency services, but it has curtailed a number of elective services.

"We've been asking for the public to be patient, for example, if they come to the emergency department, the waits are often long, the emergency departments are very, very busy," he said. "If you need to be admitted, you may spend a considerable amount of time in a emergency department, we can move you up to a bed. So we're just asking the public to, you know, understand that not only do we have a COVID pandemic, we've got a worldwide global shortage of healthcare workers."

The Capital Region’s seven-day average shows an 8 percent positive test rate in the last three days.

If COVID cases continue to rise along with hospitalizations, Hanks says the hospital has disaster plans in place.

“But, if your question is what happens if we pull all those rabbits out of our hat, what happens if the patients still keep coming? Well, then we're into really disaster mode," he said. "We try to transfer patients out of the system at that point, much like what happened in New York City, when they got overwhelmed early in the surge. They were sending patients to Albany. That would probably be the way we would have to handle a situation where the hospitals became overwhelmed.”

As at many other hospitals, the COVID patients they are seeing are mostly unvaccinated: about two-thirds. Hanks echoes many elected officials in New York in pleading with residents to get the vaccine.

“I think that the important message for the public though is if you're still on the fence about getting vaccinated, get off your duff and get the vaccine, because the Delta variant is still highly transmissible right now in our community," Hanks said. "We are in the red zone, according to the CDC, which means very, very high transmission rates and it's not too late to get vaccinated."