By Taylor Boyd and Debbie Hall
As the West Piedmont Health District (WPHD) prepares for a surge of COVID-19 cases in the upcoming weeks, Gov. Ralph Northam on Monday issued a limited 30-day order to expand the number of available hospital beds, increase staffing capacity at hospitals and nursing homes, and allow public health agencies greater flexibility in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The limited duration is based on modeling that suggests the virus will peak in the next few weeks.
Nancy Bell, public information officer for health district, said the week of January 24, based on projections from the Biocomplexity Institute of The University of Virginia (UVA).
“It could be double what we have right now in infections. So, if we get there, we’re going to be sending patients to hospitals that have beds and we’re not going to find any right away. It’s going to be bad,” she said.
The surge has the potential to affect the continued in-person learning of school divisions and the ability of people to go to work.
“In the dead of the winter when people are staying inside, it’s a recipe for disaster,” she said.
Bell said hospitals in the health district routinely do not have beds in their Intensive Care Units (ICUs), and “hospitals are asking patients with COVID not to come unless they’re really severely ill or if they’ve had a fever for more than two days.”
Additionally, “health care workers and hospitals are exhausted, and they are again facing increasing numbers of patients, affecting their ability to provide care,” Northam said, adding that he issued the order to increase Virginia’s hospital capacity and support healthcare workers responding to COVID-19, after a record number of hospitalizations were posted on Friday, Jan. 7.
To address this patient increase, Emergency Order Eighty-Four directs the State Health Commissioner to waive normal bed licensing requirements, allows hospitals to increase their licensed bed capacity, and mandates increased coordination between hospitals and local Medical Services Agencies.
Healthcare workers across the country are facing severe burnout and exhaustion 22 months into the pandemic. The Governor’s Emergency Order directs several actions to boost staff in hospitals and nursing homes. It allows providers with an active out-of-state license to practice in Virginia; authorizes experienced Physician Assistants to practice without a written supervisory agreement; increases provider-to-patient ratios; and provides certain liability protections to health care workers who act in good faith to protect patients.
In addition, it increases flexibility in the transfer of patients to state-operated psychiatric hospitals, which have seen dangerously high census levels since the pandemic began.
“These steps will help ease the strain, giving medical professionals more flexibility to care for people. Ultimately, the best thing everyone can do for our hospitals and their staff is to get vaccinated,” Northam said.
Bell advised that anyone with a concern about the ability to breathe, or those who feel like they are not getting enough oxygen, to seek treatment in a hospital. Otherwise, health officials recommend those who are ill stay home and treat symptoms as they would treat the flu.
The health district also is experiencing a shortage of COVID-19 tests, Bell said, adding it’s the same situation facing much of the nation. The shortage is primarily due to holiday travels and the resulting surge in cases and the concern over the Omicron variant.
While the WPHD held testing events right before and after Christmas it currently does not have any scheduled in Patrick County.
“We have ordered and ordered tests and once we get them, we’ll put something together,” she said.
The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) also announced it will open nine new Community Testing Centers (CTCs) to increase COVID-19 testing. (See related story.)
Virginia has among the nation’s lowest COVID-19 case rates and death rates per capita, and the Commonwealth ranks in the top ten most vaccinated states in the country. But the highly transmissible omicron variant has increased the number of people turning to the hospital with COVID-19. The overwhelming majority of individuals hospitalized have not been vaccinated against COVID-19. In fact, one hospital company reported last week that 97 percent of COVID-19 patients relying on ventilators are not vaccinated.
More than 3,500 patients statewide are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, and ICU hospitalizations have more than doubled since December 1, 2021. In addition, the winter season is spurring an increasing number of flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases in Virginia, impacting hospital capacity.
Bell also noted the district is “starting to see some COVID-flu infections,” and recommended getting a flu vaccine to help thwart that illness.
Northam also encouraged taking the following easy steps to help:
*It’s a good idea to stay away from people who have not gotten their shots.
*It’s a good idea to wear a mask when you’re around other people, especially if you don’t know whether they have been vaccinated.
*If you have not gotten a booster shot, now is the time to do it. Shots are widely available at pharmacies, doctor’s offices, and local health departments across Virginia.
*If you have children aged five and above, now is the time to get them vaccinated. This will make it easier and safer for them to go back to school.
*If you have chosen not to get your shots, you need to wear a mask and practice social distancing—to protect yourself and other people.
Locally, and as of January 3, 40.2 percent of the population, or 7,080 people, in Patrick County were fully vaccinated, according to the VDH, which noted that. 45.3 percent of the population has received at least one dose, and 46.6 percent of the adult population is fully vaccinated.
In Henry County, 47.9 percent of the population, or 24,215 people, are fully vaccinated, with 54.5 percent of the population receiving at least one dose, and 56 percent of the adult population fully vaccinated.
In the City of Martinsville, 54.8 percent of the population, or 6,884 people, are fully vaccinated, with 61.2 percent receiving at least one dose, and 69.1 percent of the adult population fully vaccinated.
For more information or tips on how to stay safe, visit www.vdh.virginia.gov or www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov.