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Published on January 05, 2022

Omicron blankets region, unvaxxed the sickest, peak a month away

by Susie C. Spear | Courtesy of Rockingham Now

WENTWORTH — Omicron is, for lack of a better word, everywhere, according to state and regional health care experts.

Rockingham County’s COVID-19 infection rate shot up to 18.2% by Tuesday as the state’s average infection rate hit a staggering 27.4%.

And for a second week, regional hospital emergency departments saw increased patient loads and asked those who simply need testing to seek tests at doctor’s offices and urgent care facilities.

Indeed, more patients with COVID-19 symptoms are showing up for care as omicron blitzes the state and nation. The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reported more than 2,700 patients hospitalized statewide on Tuesday.

“The emergency department is seeing larger volumes and as a result some patients have experienced longer wait times as more patients with COVID-19 or COVID symptoms come for care,’’ said Myla Barnhardt, director of marketing and public relations for UNC Rockingham Health Care in Eden.

“While we turn no one away who comes to the Emergency Department for care, we encourage patients who may have been exposed to COVID or who have only mild symptoms to get tested at the COVID-19 Testing Tent on the campus of UNC Rockingham Health Care or at another testing site,’’ Barnhardt said in an email.

Barnhardt further stressed that any patient with severe symptoms should call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department where the sickest patients are triaged and given priority. Severe COVID-19 symptoms include: chest pain or pressure, difficulty breathing, confusion, gray or blue-tinted skin, lips or nails, severe fatigue or confusion.

And as the highly contagious omicron variant infects the region, it’s crippling hospital staffs nationwide, causing caregiver burnout that leads to resignations, and leaving many active doctors and nursing staff ill or in quarantine.

UNC Rockingham has had some such issues, Barnhardt said.

“We are still relying on traveling personnel to fill nursing and other clinical staff positions in areas where we have vacancies,’’ she said. “As we deal with the more contagious omicron, we have several staff members who have COVID or must quarantine.’’

But patient loads do not yield, statewide statistics show and Barnhardt explained.

“We have seen the (COVID-19 patient) numbers increase steadily over the past couple of weeks. Today, Jan. 3, we have 20 confirmed cases of COVID. There are several more pending cases in the Emergency Department as we await test results.’’

And UNC Health system researchers and epidemiologists expect to see further increases in patient loads throughout the month with a peak expected in early February, Barnhardt said.

About 90% of UNC Health Care’s COVID-19 inpatients are unvaccinated, Barnhardt said. And two of the three patients in the hospital’s ICU are not vaccinated.

“We still attempt to transfer our most seriously ill patients to a hospital with more specialists, such as pulmonologists,’’ Barnhardt said, describing doctors who specialize in lung care.

But she has concern, adding, “As hospitals across our state see their volumes increase, there is less availability to accept transfers at those larger facilities.’’

Asked how caregiver morale is at UNC Health, Barnhardt said, “Our staff remains dedicated, but it is difficult to see another surge emerging. The UNC Health system continues to provide resources to promote the importance of self-care. At UNC Rockingham, we have taken steps to recognize the great measures our staff has gone to as they continue to serve on the front lines of the pandemic.’’

Another issue at hand is the risk of breakthrough infections in vaccinated patients. But thus far, UNC Rockingham has seen only low numbers of such patients, Barnhardt said. She encouraged all eligible to have booster shots to help prevent breakthrough infection, adding: “Those patients with milder symptoms who are recovering at home should contact their providers to see if they are a candidate for the most recently approved or recommended monoclonal antibody treatments.

Health care providers, including those at UNC Rockingham, encourage everyone who is eligible to be vaccinated and boosted, Barnhardt said. They also encourage responsible mask wearing and avoiding large crowds, Barnhardt said.

UNC Health provides all three available vaccines and boosters for all age groups that have been approved by the CDC. The vaccine clinic is located at 518 S. Van Buren Road, Suite 2, behind the hospital, and is open from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., Mondays through Saturdays. No appointment is needed and no one is asked to show an ID. Minors should be accompanied by a parent or guardian. We also endorse wearing masks and avoiding large gatherings.

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