Local hospitals facing strain from omicron surge

By Brandon McCapes, Staff Writer, SoCoNews, January 26, 2022

Sonoma County hospitals are facing strain from the omicron surge, creating staffing shortages and an inability to transfer COVID-positive patients to other facilities, according to health officials.

This month, the number of confirmed active COVID-19 cases skyrocketed from around 3,000 Jan. 1 to 24,000 as of Jan. 23.

Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase warned of the dangers posed by impacted hospitals at a Jan. 18 press briefing, while looking at a 30% test positivity among patients.

“Tonight we are at a crucial juncture in the pandemic driven by the omicron variant, which is a grave threat to our local hospitals’ and health care facilities’ capacity. Our new case rates are reaching levels not experienced in the two years of the pandemic,” Mase said. “Our six hospitals in Sonoma County are stressed due to staffing issues and bed capacity issues. Many staffers are out because they’ve tested positive for COVID or they have to stay home with children who have tested positive.”

Mase said that her Jan. 12 health order limiting indoor gatherings to 50 and outdoor gatherings to 100 until Feb. 11, was an effort to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed.

She also urged Sonoma County residents to limit travel outside the home to necessary activities.

“I continue to recommend limiting travel outside the home, such as just going only to work or school, and making only necessary trips such as to the grocery store or the doctor. This will help protect you and your family and the community,” Mase said.

In a Jan. 21 email to SoCoNews, Health Program Manager Kathryn Pack, of the county epidemiology team, said, “With 105 COVID patients hospitalized, we have now surpassed the number of COVID patients in the hospitals during the last winter surge. The overall hospital census of COVID and non COVID patients is much higher than last year meaning that there is less room for hospitals to adapt to a surge. Based on record review, 64% of COVID-positive hospital patients are in the hospital for COVID whereas the remainder were admitted for other reasons and happened to test positive. Regardless of status, these patients are creating strain on the hospitals that is manifesting itself in negative impacts on the ability of our health care system to provide for the non-COVID and COVID medical needs of our county.”

Pack confirmed that the omicron variant is less severe than delta, evidenced by a decreased death rate, but that it still poses significant risks to certain populations.

“Omicron is less severe than delta was, but it’s not less severe for everyone,” she said. “We are seeing hospitalizations and deaths, particularly among our older (65+) and immunocompromised residents.”

Over 40% of ICU patients are positive, and senior care facilities are experiencing “greater numbers of cases than at any point during the pandemic,” resulting to two COVID deaths among seniors in care facilities since Jan. 1.

The increased hospitalizations are causing emergency department (ED) wait times of up to four hours or more, ambulance patient offload times of 37 minutes — 20 minutes longer than the state benchmark — and staffing shortages caused by infections among healthcare workers.

Further adding to the strain on hospitals, county hospitals are finding COVID-positive patients who would otherwise be transferred to other facilities stuck in the hospital.

Sources have also confirmed elected inpatient surgeries and procedures are being delayed amid the surge.

“The inability to transfer COVID-positive patients out to senior care facilities, homeless shelters and acute psychiatric care is creating a bottleneck of patients and bed capacity issues,” Pack said.

Mase and other health officials continue to urge vaccination as a measure to reduce both transmission rates and the severity of infection.

Infections continue to be skewed towards the unvaccinated population, which is currently seeing a case rate of 451.2 (per 100,000 residents) compared to 178.4 for the vaccinated population and an overall case rate of 209.3, as of Jan. 24. More deaths have been reported and are expected to be confirmed soon.

Health officials said the unvaccinated Sonoma County residents are, in addition to being twice as likely to be infected, 17 times more likely to be hospitalized and 14 times more likely to die of infection.

“Vaccination is a primary key to helping this virus become endemic,” Pack said.

Weighing on how increased testing — up by a factor of two compared to last year — is affecting the relatively higher confirmed cases compared to last year, Pack said that regardless of increased testing, case rates are significantly higher than at any other point. Adjusting for higher testing rates, Pack said, as of Friday, Jan. 21, the case rate would be 171 per 100,000 residents rather than 230, meaning adjusted cases reflect a threefold increase over last year, rather than a fourfold increase.

SoCoNews has reached out to the county for further clarification on how best to present the data compared to last year, and given the unknowns in how at-home tests could be affecting testing positivity rates.

This article was produced by SoCoNews. See more news at soconews.org