COVID cases in Okanogan County remain very high but, since most cases caused by the Omicron variant are fairly mild, the biggest concern is that hospitals and rehab centers don’t have enough staff to care for patients with a variety of medical needs – not just COVID.
Representatives from the county’s three hospitals and Okanogan County Community Health Director Lauri Jones described workers so burnt out they’re leaving the profession, staff on sick leave because they have COVID or are caring for a family member with COVID, and difficulty filling jobs.
“We’re in a world of hurt for health care professionals,” Jones told a meeting of the Okanogan County Coalition for Health Improvement on Thursday (Jan. 27).
Although the county has been “slammed” with hundreds of cases because Omicron is so contagious, Jones delivered some encouraging news. Particularly in people who’ve been vaccinated, Omicron often looks more like a cold, with a runny nose and scratchy throat and, for unvaccinated people, it’s more like the flu, she said. Doctors aren’t seeing as much of the serious lung involvement they did with other COVID variants.
Nevertheless, people with COVID symptoms should isolate to avoid infecting others at work or in the community, even if they can’t get a test or are awaiting test results, Jones said.
Public Health’s primary concern is the number of people hospitalized, rather than the tally of positive cases, Jones said.
North Valley Hospital in Tonasket has had a higher patient load than normal – primarily people hospitalized for conditions other than COVID, CEO John McReynolds said at the meeting. Hospitals are seeing more urgent cases among people who have postponed care for chronic or other health conditions, he said.
North Valley has struggled with staff shortages at the hospital and its long-term care facility. At one point in January, 10% of the staff was out sick, McReynolds said. The lack of coverage in rehab facilities means that patients sometimes can’t be discharged even though they no longer need hospital care, he said.
Mid-Valley Hospital in Omak is facing similar problems, CEO Alan Fisher said at the meeting. Their emergency department has been overrun. Some people put off care until it becomes urgent, but others come in because they’re worried by symptoms that could be treated more effectively at a clinic or at home, he said.
Central Washington Hospital: ‘surge plans’
There were 32 people hospitalized for COVID at Central Washington Hospital in Wenatchee as of Feb. 1, six in the ICU. Confluence Health, which operates the hospital, announced last week that they are preparing to implement surge plans because of “an exceedingly high number of patients” being treated for COVID and other conditions.
Surge plans are contingency strategies for when a hospital runs out of rooms and staff. Confluence Health is working with partners to transfer patients and has started creating double-occupancy patient rooms to increase capacity, they said.
“There is a domino effect – we have patients that no longer require hospital care that need to get into a skilled nursing facility, but many facilities do not have room. These patients often stay in the hospital for days while they wait for a facility to accept them,” CEO Glenn Adams said.
Meanwhile, the hospital has no room to admit patients who come to the emergency department or are being transferred from a regional hospital, he said.
Health care providers are using community health workers and EMS agencies to check on patients and help with groceries and other supplies and hope to hire more, they said at the meeting.
Moderna vaccine gets full approval
The Moderna vaccine received full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for individuals 18 and older on Jan. 31. The approval means that two vaccines – Moderna and Pfizer – are fully authorized and no longer being administered under an emergency-use authorization (EAU) for most age groups.
With full approval, the Moderna vaccine will be marketed as Spikevax, but it is identical to the vaccine that has been given for more than a year.
The authorization came after a thorough, independent evaluation for safety, effectiveness, and manufacturing quality, the FDA said.
The Pfizer vaccine, with the brand name Comirnaty, received full approval in August for individuals 16 and older. The vaccine is available through an EAU for children age 5 through 15.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine also has an EAU for individuals 18 and older.
People can order free COVID tests from the state or federal government, and can get reimbursed by their health insurance when they buy over-the-counter tests.
Washington state received a new supply of tests and has reopened the portal where people can order up to five free tests, which are delivered within a few days. If they run out, the portal will close until more tests are available. Go to www.sayyescovidhometest.org. People can also order four tests from the federal government at COVIDtests.gov.
Masks stay on at school
A campaign to encourage “mask-off” protests at schools around the state on Jan. 31 didn’t produce any major ripples at the Methow Valley School District. One campaign flyer encouraged students to exercise their Constitutional right to peaceful protest and “to take control of their bodily autonomy.”
The district notified Methow Valley Elementary parents and families that students who elected to participate by not wearing a mask would be directed to an outdoor area near the playground. The students were welcome to rejoin classes once they put a mask on.
Masks are required for all students and staff in schools across the state by the governor and Washington Department of Health. Local districts aren’t authorized to make their own decisions, the district said.
Methow Valley Superintendent Tom Venable said parents had appreciated the notification sent by the school and the precautions the district is taking to protect everyone in the community.
Look online for county stats
The high COVID caseload has overwhelmed Okanogan County Public Health staff, who have to enter many cases in the county’s database by hand. Concerned that the daily case counts wouldn’t be accurate, the county has switched to weekly reporting.
Because those case counts are issued every Wednesday – with numbers for the previous week – the Methow Valley News is no longer reporting regular tallies. People can check the case counts, register for a vaccine, and see other info at https://okanogancountycovid19.org.