Santa Barbara County hospitals have been operating with intensive care units more than 95% full over the past few days, which is the culmination of additional patients and staffing shortages.
Less than two weeks ago on Jan. 10, the county had 76 staffed ICU beds, and on Wednesday there were 65. The reported ICU availability rate was 4.8% on Tuesday, and that number dropped to 4.3% by Thursday, according to the county’s COVID-19 Data Dashboard.
“We have seen a great impact on staff due to this Omicron variant, it’s just spreading so quickly,” Lompoc Valley Medical Center Chief Nursing Officer Yvette Cope told Noozhawk. “Our staff are being so careful here, but then they’re going home and out to the community, and it’s just spreading like crazy.”
Even though the hospitalization rate seems lower for people infected with the Omicron variant compared to previous variants of the virus, the county is reporting record-breaking numbers of new cases in January.
If you multiply a small percentage by a very large number, “you still come up with a scenario where hospitals are strained, and not just to take care of COVID-19 patients, but also to take care of other diseases,” Public Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg said last week.
From March 2020 until mid-December 2021, Lompoc Valley Medical Center had approximately 50 to 60 people test positive for the novel coronavirus out of its 1,000 employees, Cope said. But from mid-December until now, the hospital has already had 60 staff members out for COVID-19-related reasons, she added.
“Early on in this pandemic, we were so lucky here at the hospital because we didn’t have a lot of staff get COVID even through the community,” Cope said. “Now we just have a lot of staff out, we haven’t had to go through this process yet.”
Cope said that the hospital forecasted that this surge in cases was coming, and made sure that it had a lot of travel staff on board to step in. She said LVMC has been filling absences on a shift-to-shift basis with everyone stepping up and trying to fill positions.
The massive increase in community cases is believed to be caused by the contagious Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus.
Santa Barbara County has reported 22% of its all-time positive cases in the past two weeks.
Due to the surge and staffing shortages, LVMC has had to delay any kind of surgeries where it looked like there was going to be an in-patient stay, Cope said.
Following county, state, and federal guidelines, healthcare staff who test positive for COVID-19 are allowed to come back to work after five days of isolation if they are asymptomatic or were symptomatic but symptoms have subsided and they return a negative test after day five, Cope said.
The hospital tests staff on day six, and if the result comes back positive, they continue to test until day nine.
If a staff member tests positive on day nine, they can’t come back to work until day 11 if their symptoms have significantly improved and they haven’t had a fever for 24 hours, Cope said.
“It’s spreading rapidly, but the great news is with our staff it’s mild, cold-like symptoms, so they are coming back quicker,” she added.
Cottage Health, which operates hospitals in Santa Ynez, Goleta and Santa Barbara, has also seen staffing shortages at the same time it experiences an increase in COVID-19-positive patients.
Over the past two weeks, about 100 nurses and other clinical staff have called in sick or have been unable to work due to family illness each day, Cottage Health spokeswoman Maria Zate said.
“All staff are working extremely hard during this surge to cover these shifts and assure patient needs are met,” Zate said. She added that there have been slightly fewer staff absences this week compared to last.
The number of COVID-19-positive patients hospitalized at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital has increased significantly since the end of December, with 11 patients being treated on Dec. 28 and 57 patients as of Wednesday, according to Zate.
The Public Health Department reports the number of healthcare workers who test positive for COVID-19, and as of Wednesday there were 1,787 total. Ninety-four people have been reported in the past month.
While hospital capacity is what is closely tracked by Public Health officials during the pandemic, other healthcare facilities have also felt the impact of staffing shortages and increased patient loads during the recent Omicron surge in cases.
Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics had 13 staff out due to COVID-19 last week, and it was not because of patient transmission, but due to transmission out in the community, according to CEO Dr. Charles Fenzi.
“Because it’s in the community, and in our community, one out of five people are getting (COVID-19),” he said in an interview with Noozhawk last week. “It’s just inevitable with the virus — some of our staff are going to get it.”
Neighborhood Clinics has been testing its staff twice a week with antigen (rapid) tests, which is producing a lot of positive results, he added.
Between 8-10% of Sansum Clinic staff are out for COVID-19-related reasons on any given day, said Sansum spokeswoman Jill Fonte, adding that all of the infections stem from employees’ life outside of the clinic.
“It hasn’t impacted patient scheduling yet, as we have carefully shifted some people to ensure proper coverage, but we don’t have much cushion left,” Fonte told Noozhawk.
The MedCenter Urgent Care clinics in Santa Barbara and Goleta have had to close some of its offices over the past few weeks because it hasn’t had adequate personnel to staff them, said Medical Director Dr. William Meller.
“The way we do it is if we don’t have adequate staff, we have to close the office. There have been a few days over the last three weeks where we have been down to one office out of the three,” Meller said, adding that the MedCenter over-staffs the remaining offices when one has to close.
In January 2021, the MedCenter had very few staff become infected because everyone was being very cautious and “everyone was very afraid,” Meller said.
But this go-around, because people are more vaccinated, they are being more casual and relaxed in their life outside of work, which is affecting the rate of staff infection, he added.
While the MedCenter didn’t have any staff members out with COVID-19 as of Tuesday, about one-third of its total staff has been out sick since the beginning of the year, according to Meller.
“The take-home message from this is that what they’re saying about masks is making a difference, masks do make a difference,” Meller said. “An N95 or KN95 is better than a cloth mask, and better than a surgical mask.”