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UW Medicine town hall discusses increase in hospitalizations amid omicron-induced loss of staff

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UW Medicine discussed the importance of reducing COVID-19 transmissions amid a stark increase in hospitalizations and staff shortages during their Jan. 7 town hall meeting. The meeting follows President Ana Mari Cauce’s announcement Friday that gave students and educators an optional return to remote learning until Jan. 28.  

UW Medicine received over 250 questions since its last town hall regarding changes with the omicron variant, recommendations, and the booster shot. 

Number of hospitalizations and strain on medical system

Tim Dellit, the UW Medicine chief medical officer, stressed the increase in cases following the emergence of the omicron strand. 

“With the emergence of omicron, we have seen an exponential growth in cases,” Dellit said. “We had 5,000 cases in King County alone [Jan. 7].” 

The high number of cases correlates to an increase in hospitalizations over the past month.  

“We are up to 144 patients, which is the highest we’ve been as a system since the start of the pandemic,” Dellit said. 

The highest number of hospitalizations on UW Medicine campuses prior to this report were 124 in April and December of 2020. 

John Lynch, the medical director of infection prevention and control at Harborview Medical Center, raised concern on the status of hospitalizations. 

“Going from 30 [patients in December] to 144 [January] in a short time is astounding,” Lynch said. 

Although cases for omicron are perceived to be more mild compared to the delta strain of COVID-19, Dellit acknowledged the impact of the new variant’s contagious nature on medical staff.  

“What’s unique here is the impact on our staff,” Dellit said. “We are out 700 staff due to exposure; we have never had that much of an impact on our staff before.”  

As of Jan. 7 at 6 a.m., the number of hospitalizations per campus were: 53 at Valley Medical Center, 17 at UW Medical Center-Northwest,  30 at UW Medical Center-Montlake, 44 at Harborview Medical Center, and 21 at Seattle Children’s Hospital. 

“I want to clarify, kids get COVID too,” Lynch said, stating that two patients at Seattle Children’s were in the intensive care unit. 

The vast majority of infected patients tend to experience mild symptoms and are in acute care, with a small number of patients in critical care. Symptoms vary for patients with comorbidities such as diabetes. 

“Omicron is a less lethal, less dangerous disease compared to the prior variants,” Lynch said. “But it is definitely more transmissible and probably has a lot of asymptomatic carriers.” 

UW Medicine directors reiterated that UW Medicine is currently in contingency, not in crisis standards of care, which means staffing and spaces have changed to prioritize essential services.

“We are still caring for each individual patient based on their needs and their desire,” Dellit said. “We’ve got to push out efforts to decrease transmission.” 

Guidance for activities, quarantine, and masking

UW Medicine recommendations differ from CDC guidance,  which as of Dec. 27 stated that infected individuals are permitted to return to their day-to-day activities five days after symptoms end. UW Medicine recommends that infected health care workers isolate for 10 days from the onset of symptoms or the first positive test result. 

“At UW Medicine we are taking more of a conservative approach given our contingency status,” Lynch said. 

Health care workers who test negative after seven days without symptoms may return to work, but Lynch said UW Medicine’s priority is ensuring infected patients stay home and recover.  

UW Medicine reiterated that the primary form of transmission for COVID-19 is airborne droplets, and that the hospital continues to promote masking as a primary preventative measure. 

“It’s about reducing that viral load you encounter,” Santiago Neme, medical director for UW Medicine-Northwest, said. 

Whenever possible, UW Medicine officials recommend delaying travel and limiting contact to reduce transmissions amid its record number of hospitalizations. To accomodate, UW Medicine is offering telemedicine appointments when possible and recommends remote options to reduce transmission. 

Effect of vaccination and booster shot on hospitalizations

While many people in the hospital system with COVID-19 are vaccinated, there are few hospitalizations among those who have gotten the booster shot. 

According to Lynch, the high number of vaccinated patients in the hospital is likely an indicator of Washington state’s high vaccination rates among the general public rather than a sign that the vaccine is ineffective. Most vaccinated patients, however, tend to have mild symptoms compared to unvaccinated patients. 

Individuals over the age of 15 are eligible for the booster shot five months after their second shot; appointments for booster shots and COVID-19 tests are available through UW Medicine. While booster shots are not currently required, should the state mandate them, UW will likely follow suit.

Other notes 

Hospital visitation may be limited to reduce foot traffic and the likelihood of spread throughout UW Medicine campuses. UW Medicine is also working with new employees who have not accrued sick time to ensure they have time to recover to reduce potential infections on the medical campuses if they test positive for COVID-19. 

Additionally, the contingency status means that some nonemergency surgeries that require overnight stays will be delayed to prioritize essential services during heightened hospitalizations. 

“I’m just going to reiterate that this is not forever,” Patricia Kritek, associate dean of faculty affairs at the School of Medicine, said. 

Recordings of previous town hall meetings are available online with transcripts and a summary of key points discussed. Future meetings will continue to be held on Zoom with the next meeting at 3 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 14. UW Medicine will continue to answer questions sent to its online form during the next meeting. 

“Let’s just keep taking care of each other,” Kritek said. 

Reach reporter Julie Emory at Twitter: @JulieEmory2

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