By Sarah Nagem
The number of staff members at a rural North Carolina health care system who are quarantined jumped from five to 55 in less than a week, a sign of the strain put on hospitals as COVID-19 cases rise.
“We’re feeling the staffing shortage and the overwhelming number of patients,” said Gregory Wood, chief executive of Scotland Health Care, which has about 1,100 employees.
Scotland County reported 110 new COVID-19 cases on Dec. 30, shattering previous records set since the coronavirus pandemic began nearly two years ago, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
The county saw 50 new hospital admissions in the seven-day period ending Tuesday, an increase of 138.1% from the previous week, according to the CDC.
The situation in Scotland County is representative of what’s happening across North Carolina and much of the country. The state reported a record-high number of cases on New Year’s Day.
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On Tuesday, 3,008 COVID patients were hospitalized throughout the state, filling 80% of hospital beds, Kody Kinsley, secretary of DHHS, said during a press conference. Just over 600 patients were in ICUs, filling 85% of those beds.
“We are concerned both for patient care and for staffing,” Kinsley said. “We are in close contact with hospital leaders to manage capacity and provide support through our patient coordination system, if needed.”
Scotland Memorial has been full for about two weeks, Wood said. But fewer patients need intensive care than late last summer, when the delta variant caused a spike in cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
Wood said the hospital has had two to three COVID patients in the ICU recently – far below the eight to 12 patients it saw during a weeks-long span in August and September.
Meanwhile, Scotland County has not reported a COVID-related death since Dec. 13, according to data from DHHS.
Experts say studies show that COVID infections linked to omicron produce less-severe symptoms. But Wood said COVID patients who require hospitalization, even if they do not need ventilators, are very ill.
The key, according to Wood and other health officials, is vaccinations and booster shots.
More than 87% of COVID patients in ICUs across the state are unvaccinated, Kinsley said during the press conference Tuesday afternoon.
“Testing and wearing a mask are essential tools in slowing the spread of COVID-19,” he said. “But the bottom line is that vaccines and boosters are the number one thing you can do to protect your health.”
In Scotland County, 47% of the population is fully vaccinated, according to DHHS. That compares to 59% statewide.
Surrounding counties also lag behind in vaccination rates. In Robeson County, 40% of people are fully vaccinated, meaning they have received at least two doses of the vaccine. Columbus County has a rate of 42%.
UNC Health Southeastern in Lumberton had 22 COVID patients as of Monday, according to Vice President and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Joe Roberts. Six of those patients were in the ICU, and six were on ventilators.
Roberts did not say how many staff members were quarantined, but he said the hospital was “following CDC guidelines.”
The CDC now says health care workers who are fully vaccinated and have received a booster shot can continue to work if they were exposed to COVID-19 but do not show symptoms of the virus.
As of Monday morning, Columbus Regional Hospital had 12 COVID patients, said spokeswoman Stephanie Miller. None of them were on ventilators, she said.
Miller said she did not know how many staff members within the Columbus Regional Healthcare System were quarantined.
“From a staff perspective we remain at an adequate level,” she said in an email.
Scotland Health Care System is relying on contract workers, including traveling nurses, to make up for staffing shortages, Wood said.
Off the 55 workers listed as quarantined, Wood said, 18 are isolating at home. The others are following safety precautions to continue working.
All of the system’s employees are now required to use N95 masks, Wood said. Previously, only workers who dealt directly with patients were required to have N95 masks.
‘It’s going to get worse’
The omicron variant is straining hospitals as flu season ramps up.
Between 2% and 3% of patients at Scotland Health have tested positive for the flu in recent weeks, Wood said. He expects that number to rise in the coming weeks.
“That’s certainly a concern for us,” he said.
Wood said he anticipates the latest COVID surge will begin to subside in three to six weeks.
Until then, “It’s going to get worse,” Scotland County Health Director Eli Caldwell said of the rise in cases. But he said he does not expect hospitals to become totally overwhelmed.
“We are better off now,” Caldwell said, noting the existence of vaccines and treatments for COVID-19 patients. “We are better off, but we still have a long, long way to go.”
Follow Sarah Nagem on Twitter: @sarah_nagem