Health-care staff and critical care facilities around the region have reached their limit.
With critical care beds at Winchester Medical Center and other regional hospitals either full or nearly full largely because of patients diagnosed with COVID-19, Valley Health released a statement Wednesday urging people to take the virus seriously and get vaccinated if able.
“Valley Health’s six hospitals are currently treating 140 patients for COVID-19, about 85% of whom are unvaccinated,” the news release says.
Of the 140 patients, 103 were at Winchester Medical Center, with 29 in the ICU and 17 on ventilators, Valley Health spokesperson Carol Weare confirmed on Tuesday.
“Our caregivers have worked double shifts, nights, weekends and holidays to save patients and fight COVID-19 in our community,” Mark Nantz, president and CEO of Valley Health, says in the release.
“They have shown remarkable resiliency, but they, like all of us, are growing tired,” he says. “We are asking our community to pull together and help end the spread of this virus.”
Because of the shortage of beds and strain on staff, he announced several changes that Valley Health is starting to implement this week.
Additional ICU capacity
With all available ICU beds filled as of Friday, WMC opened an additional unit to accommodate the number of severely ill patients needing care.
As of Sunday, there were 23 COVID positive patients in the Emergency Department with limited bed availability. All ICUs in the region, which includes Johns Hopkins, INOVA, MedStar and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, are taking 24 hours or more to accept transfers, the news release says.
Hospital visiting curtailed
Patient visitation at Valley Health’s six hospitals is being curtailed to reduce the risk of transmission among visitors, patients and caregivers.
“In the last several weeks, Valley Health has seen an increase in disruptive visitor behavior, including refusal to abide by masking requirements while visiting,” the release says.
Visitation exceptions in Winchester will include labor and delivery, mother/baby, pediatrics and NICU, and special circumstances at all facilities, including end-of-life care on a case-by-case basis.
Visit valleyhealthlink.com/visitation for updates and details.
This week, all Valley Health hospitals and outpatient surgery centers have begun postponing some elective and non-essential procedures and surgeries.
“This will not impact procedures and surgeries for patients whose condition is emergent or urgent, as determined by their physician,” the release says. “This decision was made after thoughtful consideration and is consistent with the guidance being provided by governmental, clinical, and regulatory organizations.”
In early August, Valley Health announced that it was moving up its fall deadline to have all of its staff members vaccinated against COVID, requiring that proof of first vaccinations or an acceptable exemption be submitted by Sept. 7.
Though it said that 97% of its staff had received a first vaccine or the required medical or religious exemptions, the health system granted a two-week extension to those who had not yet complied before they would be subject to termination. That extension ended on Tuesday.
“I implore residents to get vaccinated, continue to follow masking recommendations and consider implementing social distancing measures such as canceling events where the virus could easily spread,” Chief Physician Executive Iyad Sabbagh says in the release.
Valley Health’s most severely ill patients are unvaccinated, which Sabbagh says underscores the importance of COVID-19 vaccination. Furthermore, the delta variant is more contagious and is spreading rapidly around the community, he says.
“The data and scientific evidence overwhelmingly points to the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccination,” he says.
So far in September, the Virginia Department of Health has reported 77 COVID-related hospitalizations and 24 deaths around the health district.
On Wednesday, the district also added 207 new COVID cases, exceeding 200 daily cases for the first time since Jan. 28.
Shenandoah County, which added 58 cases Wednesday for more than a quarter of the health district’s new cases, also reported one new hospitalization and one death.
Frederick County added 62 cases, Page County 33, Warren County 27, Winchester 18 and Clarke County nine.
Though the health district added 10 hospitalizations since Monday, those 10 might not directly impact the total number of patients in hospital beds.
“This is a fluid situation,” Weare said on Wednesday.
Patients are constantly coming into the Emergency Department, being tested and assessed, some discharged and others waiting for admission to a unit, she said.
“And other COVID patients are being moved from ICU to the floor, and then home, or in some cases, not,” she said. “So a VDH report of 10 hospitalizations in the region doesn’t necessarily mean 10 additional beds were needed.”
The daily count of hospitalized patients, their vaccination status, and the number of staff members required for their acute care “changes quickly and makes it challenging to provide an accurate snapshot of how many community members are being treated across the system at any point in time,” Sabbagh says in the release.
“Within hours, our count can change dramatically,” he says. “We are also seeing an increase in the number of patients being dishonest about their vaccination status, which makes it hard to share that data with our community.”
Patients fear they won’t receive care if they share with staff that they are unvaccinated, he says.
“Our job is to care for every individual who comes to us,” Sabbagh says. “While we want the public to know that vaccination is the best way to stop the spread of COVID, we also want them to know that we’re here to care for them, regardless of their vaccination status. It is our mission as healthcare providers.”
To help with the surge of patients and strain on the system, Valley Health has been “recruiting new staff to fill vacancies left by employees who chose not to comply with the vaccination requirement,” the release says.
The health system has seen an increase in new hires and overall has had a net gain of staff since announcing the vaccination policy in July.
“Our challenge is not staffing due to our COVID-19 vaccine requirement,” Nantz says in the release. “Our challenge is the sheer number of severely ill COVID-19 patients presenting for care at our hospitals.”