CHARLES TOWN – The Omicron variant of the coronavirus from South Africa has arrived in Jefferson County, and the area’s medical system has been feeling the extra workload it’s causing.
Doctor’s offices are overflowing with feverish and sniffling patients. Hospital beds are nearly filled to capacity every day, often with those having trouble breathing. Ambulance crews are running more medical calls for those with every degree of symptom in between.
So far, every day this month except for New Year’s Day, Jefferson Medical Center in Ranson has been coping with more in-patients than its 25-bed hospital is typically staffed to handle. And on New Year’s Day the hospital was treating 24 patients.
“The Omicron, we know, is in the Eastern Panhandle,” said Dr. Terrence Reidy, Jefferson County Health Department’s medical officer. “It’s everywhere.”
Dean Thomas, president and CEO of WVU Medicine East, which leads the sister hospitals of Jefferson and Berkeley medical centers as well as a family medical practice in Harpers Ferry, said hospitals’ staffs have been busy managing a wide range of different patient medical priorities for several months now.
Heart attacks, car accidents and broken legs haven’t stopped during the pandemic.
“No question that the wait times have gone up,” Thomas acknowledged. “That’s just a function of high demand.”
Moreover, area nursing homes and their staffs are challenged with managing the COVID outbreak just as other medical facilities are, Thomas said. As a result, those facilities haven’t accepted their usual number of recovering “post-acute care” hospital patients, adding to the challenge of clearing hospital beds for incoming patients, he said.
“The health care system really is stretched to the limit across the state and really across the country,” Thomas said. “It is not going to be a good situation for somebody with a mild illness to try to access really any part of the health care system.”
Thomas said that patients who might have COVID who have trouble breathing should see their doctor, go to the hospital, or come to the emergency room as appropriate. However, for those with COVID with milder symptoms, please stay home and manage the course of your illness as you would with a cold or the flu, he asked.
Meanwhile, ambulance call volumes have significantly increased over the past month or more from people with Omicron-like symptoms, said Bob Burner, director of the Jefferson County Emergency Services Agency, which oversees the county’s roughly 60 full- and part-time career emergency firefighters and emergency medical responders.
Sometimes patients have had to wait inside ambulances at the emergency room door while hospital officials work to find room to admit them, Burner said.
“The hospitals are full, and that kind of trickles down,” he said.
Ambulance crews have continued the extra work during the pandemic to sanitize ambulances after each patient is transported to a hospital, Burner said. That safety protocol has kept crews busier as the number of ambulance calls has increased over the last month or more, he said.
Burner said he understands the increasing challenge the Omicron spike has created for the hospitals and their staffs.
He said ambulance crews have been suggesting to patients with mild COVID symptoms to reconsider whether they want to be taken to a hospital for medical care. Sometimes contacting their family doctor or a medical care hotline can be a better option, he said.
“We leave that choice to them,” he said. “But if they want to go the hospital, then, by all means, we take them to the hospital.”
The Omicron variant likely first arrived early last month because known infections, in general, went up along with hospital visits, Reidy said. That’s also when demand for the health department’s free COVID diagnostic testing increased from about 70 a day to 1,000 or more a day, a likely reflection of people showing symptoms, he said.
The more sophisticated genetic laboratory tests necessary to identify Omicron didn’t confirm the variant was in the county until about two weeks later, he said. That’s also when diagnosed COVID infections jumped up along with hospital and doctor’s office visits, Thomas said.
“All are seeing a big uptick of calls and patient visits from those who suspect that they may have been infected by the Omicron variant,” Thomas said, who leads the sister hospitals of Jefferson and Berkeley medical centers as well as a family medical practice in Harpers Ferry.“And lots of folks are getting tested.”
Last week lab tests identified more than 1,000 new coronavirus infections in the county, Reidy said. With its much higher contagiousness, the Omicron variant has shown elsewhere, that number is likely to likely double when known new cases are counted this week, he said.
Those cases don’t count people who fell ill and tested positive with home tests that aren’t reported. In addition, those cases don’t count those who feel mild symptoms, or those who become infected but are still contagious without showing symptoms.
And doctors and nurses aren’t immune from the virus. Infections from Omicron have continued to put a steady number of WVU Medicine’s 2,500 medical staff that have been out of work on quarantine at any one time, Thomas said.
“It is a challenge,” he said. “We have approximately 100 staff that have been out on quarantine at any point or out ill at any point in time over the last several weeks, and so it is difficult.”
Thomas and Reidy agree that the more deadly Delta variant retains a stubborn foothold in the county. A significant number of coronavirus infections in the county still involve the Delta variant, they said.
Generally attacking respiratory systems where the Omicron does not, the Delta keeps a steady stream of people in the hospital and on ventilator breathing matchines.
Treating a Delta infection can require 30 days or more of hospital care. On any given day, Thomas said, patients at Jefferson and Berkeley medical centers could be struggling for their lives.
Reidy estimates that about half of the county’s infections are likely from Delta.
Meanwhile, Omicron’s symptoms mostly resemble a cold with a runny nose. Although the new variant has so far been generally less severe than the Delta variant, its wider spread can still generate severe cases landing people in the hospital and on a ventilator, Reidy said.
“Fortunately, for a lot of people, it’s very mild colds,” he said. “But, for some people, they’re sicker and there definitely are people ending up in the hospital.”
Still, Reidy said he hopes Omicron displaces the Delta variant. But he added that the final story of Omicron’s influence since its first appearance in South African hasn’t played out and, therefore, isn’t entirely known yet.
“Our wishful thinking is that each variant will be less and less severe, but there’s no law that says that,” he said. “It could be more severe or less severe, more transmissible or less transmissible.”
By being in the Washington metro area, Jefferson County is leading the state of West Virginia in initial Omicron infections. Soon, inevitably, the rest of West Virginia will be confronting similar waves of Omicron infects, Thomas and Reidy said.
“That’s kind of what we’ve seen throughout the pandemic—the Eastern Panhandle really sees the impact first” of the spread of the coronavirus before the rest of West Virginia, Thomas said.
“As in the very beginning of this, we are seeing a surge in cases before the rest of the state,” Reidy said. “The rest of the state is starting to see it.”