Pennsylvania sees record high in COVID-19 hospitalizations

Military teams have been dispatched to aid two regions. Hospitals are dealing with staff shortages, with many workers getting infected.

Pennsylvania healthcare systems are struggling as they treat a huge influx of COVID-19 patients while battling staffing shortages.

More than 6,400 COVID-19 patients are being treated in Pennsylvania's hospitals, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. The Keystone State has reached a record high in COVID-19 hospitalizations, surpassing the previous peak of 6,300 in December 2020.

Following a request from Gov. Tom Wolf, U.S. Air Force medical teams have been deployed to help healthcare providers in Scranton and York. Hospitals across the state are scrambling to deal with the waves of COVID-19 patients.

One Air Force medical team is aiding WellSpan Health’s York Hospital in central Pennsylvania. Tony Aquilina, executive vice president and chief physician executive of WellSpan Health, said about 40% of the system’s roughly 1,200 patients are being treated for COVID-19. He stressed they are hospitalized due to the coronavirus and don’t reflect patients being treated for other ailments who subsequently tested positive for COVID-19.

Aquilina said there is some indication that the Omicron variant could be less severe than other variants, but it’s far more transmissible.

“The problem is the sheer numbers of people getting infected,” he said.

WellSpan Health’s hospitals were treating 250 COVID-19 patients six weeks ago. Now, the system is caring for 450 patients with the coronavirus.

Officials at WellSpan and other health systems said the vast majority of the COVID-19 patients in hospitals are unvaccinated.

The military medical team in York will offer assistance for 30 days, and WellSpan welcomes the help. Roxanna Gapstur, president and CEO of WellSpan Health, said the team allows WellSpan’s staff to help out other facilities in the system.

Gapstur said the military team’s assistance could be critical as WellSpan braces for even more COVID-19 patients as people resume normal activities following the holidays.

“We’re expecting additional COVID cases will continue to increase the strain on our health system and they could place our community’s access to care in jeopardy,” she said.

WellSpan is also treating more pediatric patients with the coronavirus. WellSpan had a 20% increase in COVID-19 cases last week and a 23% increase this week. “And the week isn’t over yet,” Gapstur said.

Penn State Health is treating 229 COVID-19 patients in its four hospitals, just below the high mark of the pandemic (230 in December 2020).

“The demand on healthcare facilities, on our hospitals and emergency rooms, has been incredibly high in the past few weeks,” said Peter Dillon, executive vice president and chief clinical officer at Penn State Health.

Dillon said it’s the confluence of COVID-19 patients, the decline in staffing, and an uptick in patients who have delayed healthcare for other reasons. Plus, the system is dealing with patients with the flu, which wasn’t a problem last year.

About 270 Penn State Health staff have also been infected with COVID-19, adding to the headaches, officials said.

“We have nurses, caregivers, and physicians who unfortunately have been exposed in various environments to COVID-19,” Dillon said.

Dr. Fahad Khalid, chief of the division of hospital medicine at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, said the hospital is treating more patients than ever before.

“This is completely different than what we have seen,” Khalid said. “It’s unprecedented what we’re seeing in our emergency room.”

Khalid said the majority of the Hershey Medical Center’s COVID-19 patients have been infected with the Omicron strain. While some health systems have said some Omicron patients aren’t as profoundly ill as those infected with the Delta variant, Khalid said, “We haven’t seen any decrease in severity.”

Geisinger, which operates nine hospitals across Pennsylvania, said its facilities are packed. The hospitals are operating at more than 100% of capacity, the system said.

About 97% of the system's 320 COVID-19 patients are either unvaccinated or received their last dose of the vaccine more than six months ago. Geisinger is urging residents to get vaccinated and get their booster shots if eligible.

Earlier this week, the Philadelphia Department of Health reported 949 patients with COVID-19 are being treated in Philadelphia hospitals.

UPMC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Don Yealy told KDKA-TV of Pittsburgh that the number of COVID-19 patients in the system’s hospitals is the second highest of the pandemic. Earlier this week, Yealy told the station they are seeing a steady increase, along with a number of UPMC’s workers in isolation due to COVID-19.

St. Luke’s University Health Network in northeastern Pennsylvania is seeing more patients than ever. The system put out a statement supporting mask mandates in schools to curbe the spread of the virus.

“What we are experiencing now is our biggest Covid surge yet,” Jeffrey Jahre, St. Luke’s senior vice president of medical & academic affairs and section chief emeritus of infectious diseases, said in a statement. “If there was ever a time for area school boards, administrators and parents to get behind masking, it’s now.”

The Lehigh Valley Health Network has changed guidelines for hospital visitors, with only one visitor allowed at a patient’s bedside at any time. Patients can designate two visitors for their entire stay.

Some of Pennsylvania's neighboring states are also being hit hard by the Omicron variant.

Ohio, Maryland and Delaware have set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations in recent days.

This week, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency and mobilized 1,000 members of the National Guard to assist pandemic response efforts. The state has surpassed 3,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations. In December, the state ordered hospitals to delay non-urgent surgeries. At that time, Maryland had about 1,200 people in hospitals with COVID-19.

Over the last week, New York state's coronavirus hospitalizations rose from 7,919 to 11,184. New York, which has averaged nearly 70,000 new infections per day over the past two weeks, has been bracing for the worst since late December.

In Pennsylvania, hospital officials said they are expecting a rough time over the next several weeks. Deborah Addo, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Penn State Health, likened the latest wave of COVID-19 patients to the film "Groundhog Day," with staff facing the same weary challenge again and again.

“We have an engaged group, but they are tired," she said.