LIMA — Mercy Health-St. Rita’s Medical Center recorded its highest-ever COVID-19 patient census on Tuesday: The hospital was treating as many as 104 patients with coronavirus disease, who accounted for one-third of all patients that day.
The trend is unfolding in Lima hospitals and community hospitals throughout the region, where record-breaking numbers of mostly unvaccinated patients being treated for COVID-19 means there are now fewer elective surgeries, more patients boarding in the emergency department and even triage of mildly ill patients who would otherwise wait hours in the emergency room to see a doctor.
At St. Rita’s, procedural areas where patients would typically recover from an endoscopy exam or heart catheterizations are now being used to care for traditional medical patients, said Dr. Matthew Owens, chief clinical officer for Mercy Health-St. Rita’s.
There are so many critically ill patients that St. Rita’s has ordered additional ventilators and is still operating two extra intensive care units, according to Owens.
Lima Memorial Health System is triaging patients to reduce emergency department wait times by directing mildly ill patients to telehealth or mid-level health providers, said Dr. Dennis Morris, vice president and chief medical officer for Lima Memorial.
The hospital is conducting fewer elective procedures and has since opened an additional wing for patients who were boarding in the emergency department, while about half of all of Lima Memorial’s patients today have COVID-19, Morris said.
Shortages of nurses and respiratory therapists have pushed hospitals to rely on staff to be versatile too by working extra shifts or filling in as technicians and runners, Owens said.
About 90% of all patients hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, while critically ill patients are even more likely to be unvaccinated, according to Owens and Morris.
Getting back to what works
November marked the third-worst month for coronavirus infections in Allen County since the start of the pandemic, fueled by a highly contagious variant of coronavirus and limited interest in vaccines.
Since August, Allen County has seen more than 6,400 coronavirus cases and at least 74 deaths, many attributable to the surge caused by the highly contagious delta variant of coronavirus, preliminary Ohio Department of Health data show.
The variant, which became the dominant strain of the virus present in Ohio by late July, was so transmissible that Allen County saw a higher rate of coronavirus infections and almost as many deaths this fall as it did last year despite 40% of the population having started their vaccines.
By comparison, the same period last year saw nearly 5,300 cases and 84 deaths in Allen County, according to ODH data.
The delta surge may have been even deadlier than it appears, as some deaths from November may not be recorded yet due to reporting delays.
Another surge in infections from the Thanksgiving holiday could stress the system further, potentially jeopardizing routine care given the region’s low vaccination rates and the lack of enforceable health orders to increase masking and social distancing.
“It’s going to take all of us to recognize that while we may be over the pandemic, the pandemic is still with us,” said Brandon Fischer, Allen County health commissioner.
To Kim Rieman, Putnam County health commissioner, the solution is to get back to “the things that we know work”: masking, vaccination, social distancing and staying home when sick.
“We know that masking works,” Rieman said. “We know that vaccination works.”