Top OKC physicians urge compassion, call for help from the community amidst Omicron surge - MetroFamily Magazine
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Top OKC physicians urge compassion, call for help from the community amidst Omicron surge

by Erin Page

Reading Time: 5 minutes 
Top physicians from the metro’s four major hospital systems held a press conference Tuesday, Jan. 18 to explain the dire situation the COVID variant Omicron is waging on the healthcare system and community at large.
“You may feel Omicron is mild. But if you were standing in our ER, you would see the impact on our health system is anything but mild,” said Dr. Kersey Winfree, chief medical officer for SSM Health St. Anthony. “Omicron is aggressive and highly contagious. It is spreading rapidly and disrupting our communities.”
Of particular note, currently, in Oklahoma City across all healthcare systems, 117 patients are waiting for an open bed, some patients are waiting more than 24 hours for an ICU bed to open up, there are more patients to nurses and doctors than can remain feasible, supply chain issues have created limited access to needed supplies, violence against healthcare workers is on the rise and, despite healthcare workers’ best efforts, they are unable to provide care as they normally would, according to Dr. Julie Watson, chief medical officer for INTEGRIS Health. She added that patients are sometimes being cared for in hallways and closets while they wait for a better solution.
The physicians estimate that hundreds to a thousand local healthcare workers are either sick, in quarantine, caring for sick family members or home with children due to lack of childcare who cannot come to work, reducing already limited and exhausted staff.

“There are a record number of patients in our ERs in last few weeks, the waiting rooms stay full to overflowing, patients are on ventilators in the ER until we find room in the ICU, and care is delayed because there is nowhere for patients to go,” said  Dr. Chad Smith, chief medical officer, for Mercy Hospital Oklahoma City.

Smith noted that patients who are angry about long wait times often take out their frustration on the healthcare workers. Another complication Smith added is that, more often than not, metro-area hospitals cannot receive patient transfers from rural, out-of-state or other metro hospitals because they don’t have room.

Dr. Dale Brazler, chief COVID officer for OU Health, reports that in the past week Oklahoma has gone from 47th in the nation for the number of new cases per day, per capita, to yesterday being 13th in the nation. That includes the highest number of COVID patients at OU Children’s they have had throughout the pandemic.

“Our number of children with COVID is 2 to 3 times higher than we have ever seen,” said Dr. P. Cameron Mantor,  acting chief medical officer at OU Health, “with upwards of 30 kids in our hospital and six to seven in the ICU.”

The percentage of kids coming in to have surgeries or procedures at OU Children’s who test positive for COVID (and subsequently have to cancel their procedure) is significantly higher, too. That number typically stands at about 1 to 1.5% of kids testing positive but has risen to 13 percent, according to Mantor.

The physicians reiterated that vaccinated individuals are much less likely to have complications or require hospitalization if they contract COVID compared to non-vaccinated individuals.

“Last week, there were no ICU patients that were COVID positive who were fully vaccinated,” said Watson, who added that at INTEGRIS, on average, 75 to 80 percent of patients across the board who test positive for COVID are unvaccinated.

At Mercy, 88 percent of patients who tested positive for COVID were not fully vaccinated and boosted, according to Smith. All the physicians noted that not all COVID-positive patients came to the hospitals to be treated for COVID, but if they test positive, they require the resources and necessary isolation to be treated for COVID.

The healthcare leaders are also working with state and city leaders to increase testing opportunities, procure monoclonal treatment options and consider supply shortages, among other strategies.

For Oklahomans, all of this translates to a potential inability to receive care for themselves or their family members when they require hospital-level treatment, whether for COVID-related illness or injuries from a car accident, need for emergency surgery or life-saving care. Winfree said only community members can bring this “preventable tragedy” to an end.

The physicians request community members help by:

  1. Wearing a medical-grade mask diligently in public places regardless of vaccination status
  2. Get vaccinated and boosted as those strategies will greatly reduce risk of complications or hospitalization if you do contract COVID
  3. Avoid indoor crowds
  4. Stay home if you test positive or have symptoms
  5. Wash your hands frequently
  6. Consider your own risk factors and the risk factors of those around you and take additional precautions as necessary.

Winfree urged businesses to: require masks in group settings, postpone nonessential events until case numbers decrease for at least two weeks and avoid meetings and gatherings.

“Please work with us until we are on the other side of this surge, said Watson. “We want you to get vaccinated and boosted; you likely won’t require hospital care if you get it. We need your grace and patience while we struggle to provide the best possible care under near-impossible circumstances.”

The physicians share more about what our community healthcare system is up against in their letter below and address further how community members can help:

Dear Fellow Oklahomans,
Our emergency departments are overflowing. Our caregivers are still strong, but they are exhausted. Even these heroes can’t keep up much longer. The Oklahoma City Health Care System is at a breaking point.
Soon, you or a loved one may need us for life-saving care, whether for a stroke, emergency appendectomy or trauma from a car accident, and we might not be able to help. This pandemic isn’t just impacting care for COVID patients.
We have 300 fewer beds than we did last year at this time, but we have the same number of COVID-positive patients in the hospital – and this number will continue to go up, at least for the next few weeks. It’s a desperate battle and we need you to be aware and help.
Your local hospitals are trying to adapt as best we can to these circumstances. Unfortunately, between our four health systems, we have hundreds of co-workers in quarantine or unable to come to work due to kids out of school and no available childcare. This has nearly crippled our already limited staff. Nurses are having to stretch to care for several more patients than they usually do. This is devastating and prevents us from being able to provide the excellent care we’ve been trained to give and that you’ve received in the past.
We have zero ICU beds and no inpatient beds available. This morning, all of our health systems across the Oklahoma City metro had a total of 107 patients in our emergency departments waiting for an open bed. They are waiting on inpatient or ICU beds, which are not available. To make matters even more difficult, many people who do not require emergency care are seeking COVID testing in our ERs that are there to serve very sick people.  
We need you to know what we are up against. We need your help. We want to see you in our ERs if you are experiencing a true emergency, like trouble breathing. But we have to preserve our very limited resources for truly sick patients. If you’re asymptomatic or experiencing mild symptoms, please visit one of the many community testing locations hosted by the health department or IMMY Labs. Get vaccinated. Get boosted. Wear your mask. Socially distance. Stay home if you’re sick. 
We also need you to be kind to our caregivers and co-workers. Patients are coming to us struggling to cope with life stressors, and violence against health care workers is at an all-time high. Our caregivers are wounded from this two-year battle and are being asked to work under unconscionable conditions. Please be kind and patient with them.
Please do your part so fellow Oklahomans, our loved ones and neighbors, will have medical care available to them when needed.
With concern and compassion,
Julie Watson, M.D. – chief medical officer, INTEGRIS Health
Chad Smith, M.D. – chief medical officer, Mercy Hospital Oklahoma City
P. Cameron Mantor, M.D. – acting chief medical officer, OU Health
Kersey Winfree, M.D. –  chief medical officer, SSM Health St. Anthony

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