From celebrations to hospitalizations.
That’s what local health officials say has happened over the past few weeks as holiday gatherings come to an end.
“We’re experiencing, right now, our second-highest peak in COVID since last year.”
That’s what Dr. David Burwell the Chief Quality Officer for UPMC Altoona, Bedford, Somerset, and Western Maryland said about the recent spike.
“We are still seeing significantly high volumes of COVID in our hospitals in our region,”
Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center is experiencing similar issues, according to Jelden Arcilla, their Vice President and Chief Nursing Officer.
“Since September, we’ve probably tripled the number that we’re seeing, not only in testing positive, but also being admitted to the hospital,” he told 6 News.
They say holiday gatherings could be to blame since the virus knows no boundaries.
“That’s mainly it. Not maintaining the social distancing, we let our guards down, and not wearing the masks,” Arcilla said.
“A lot of families feel that they know each other, they’re accustomed to each other, and they’re immune from each other. That’s not the case. Especially if they live in different households or different parts of the region. They’re still equally at risk being in exposure to one another,” he continued.
Dr. Burwell said between all four of the hospitals under their umbrella 132 people are hospitalized with COVID-19.
“All UPMC facilities right now are running at or above capacity. That challenge along with a reduced workforce is really, really difficult,”
There has even been a change in the age demographic of who lies in their hospital beds, he adds.
“We have noticed deaths among people who are quite young recently, in their 40s and their 20s, and the like. So, this is much different than early on in the pandemic when it was mostly affecting people over the age of 65.”
For Conemaugh Memorial, from January 3rd through January 9th, 49 patients were admitted with COVID-19.
82 percent of those people are not vaccinated, their health officials say.
“We haven’t admitted anybody for getting a COVID shot or a flu shot, but we’ve admitted plenty for not getting the shots and getting sick with COVID or flu. That’s the take home message in the end,”
He said there have also been an uptick in “breakthrough cases,” which is when vaccinated people catch the virus.
There has been strong reaction on social media about that, posing the question, why get vaccinated at all?
“Whether you’re vaccinated or unvaccinated, we all still have the potential to be carriers and to spread the disease. The difference would be, if you’re vaccinated, you won’t get as sick as somebody who is not vaccinated,”
“Just like everything else, whether it’s flu or any other vaccine, it won’t 100 percent prevent you from contracting infection or disease. But, it definitely reduces the risk of having a worse case of it, or even more so, being admitted to the hospital.”
Dr. Burwell agrees.
“The vaccine is not a shield. It is not a shield that protects you from getting an infection. What is does protect, at a high rate, is protect you from severe COVID. That’s what we’re seeing in patients that do develop severe COVID: the vast majority of them are unvaccinated,”
Another factor contributing to the rise in COVID-19 cases: the Omicron variant, according to health experts.
Neither Conemaugh Memorial nor UPMC test for which variant a patient has, but UPMC does ‘sampling’ to provide some insight.
“Our samplings within UPMC are showing that greater than 90 percent are the Omicron variant at this time,” Dr. Burwell said.
Not only has the recent spike been challenging for patients, but also for the hospital staff.
“Even our staff aren’t free from getting impacted by COVID. We have a lot of folks as well that fall sick and ill and are turning positive from COVID. That means a lot of time lost and time off work. That does impact our ability to perform our services fully,”
Dr. Burwell said the community can help hospital staff by preventing hospitalizations in the first place.
He said to continue social distancing, wearing a mask, washing your hands, and most importantly: getting vaccinated.
“If we can prevent severe COVID with vaccinations, that’s still the key, because that will be less individuals requiring a significant amount of resources within the hospital,” he said.
With the CDC predicting a surge over next month, both health officials say they’re bracing for impact while hoping for community support.
“We’re just bracing ourselves. We’re doing all we can to prepare for a surge. We just ask that the community do their part to protect themselves and protect others, and we’ll do our part to do the best we can to care for you.”
Dr. Burwell said he thinks the COVID-19 pandemic will evolve into an ‘endemic’ like the flu, which means vaccinations will be even more critical.