Penn Highlands officials says system feeling COVID stress

The Penn Highlands Healthcare System, like others across the nation, is feeling the stress from the COVID-19 omicron variant.

“The COVID-19 numbers continue to climb throughout Pennsylvania,” said Dr. Russell Cameron, the chief medical officer with Penn Highlands. “The surge started sooner than we expected due to the omicron variant,” Cameron added.

Penn Highlands operates seven hospitals, including one in Brookville, and 150 other facilities in western and central Pennsylvania, including one in Clarion County.

Cameron said there are currently 92 in-patients with COVID system-wide, and there have been 17 COVID-related deaths in the system in the past week, he added.

Cameron said Penn Highlands has about the same number of patients with COVID as last year.

“This year we are seeing more patients in our physician offices and clinics but the number of hospital admissions is similar to last year,” he said. “The overwhelming majority of patients who are doing poorly are in the ICU and are on ventilators.”

Cameron said that of Penn Highlands’ 6,100 employees system-wide, 199 have tested positive or are awaiting results.

Cameron said Pfizer’s antivirus pill has been in short supply.

“There is a limited supply of the medication and it is being sent to regional pharmacies in limited numbers,” Cameron said. “We are in the process of trying to get doses for our regional pharmacies.”

The physician said there is a concern over the increase in COVID cases among children.

“Pediatric COVID cases are more than 20 percent of all COVID cases,” said Cameron. “We are seeing more younger children with the virus. Children under five are the largest group that is not vaccinated.”

He also said the re-emergence of influenza has added to the stress caused by COVID.

“The flu disappeared in 2020 because people were wearing masks, socially distancing and avoiding large gatherings,” Cameron said. “We are now seeing cases of influenza. The flu strain that is now the most dominant in the U.S., which is a strain of H3N2, is not the type of flu that this season’s vaccines specifically guard against. That means the flu vaccine may be less effective against that strain. We have seen patients who test positive for both,” Cameron said.

Mark Norman, the Penn Highlands chief operating officer, said “our staff is stretched but they are doing an incredible job.”

The outbreak of the delta and omicron variants added to the stress on the employees, he said.

“Just like everywhere else our employees are getting sick but every day we have the staff to provide the care our patients require,” he said.

The shortage of workers has added to the problems facing Penn Highlands.

“We have focused more resources on our hiring processes as well as preparing to change the way we staff our patient care floors to utilize more support personnel to supplement because of the shortage of registered nurses,” said Norman.

The shortage of workers has also had a ripple effect, according to Norman.

“It is difficult to move patients from the hospital to nursing homes because the nursing homes cannot take patients due to the lack of staffing,” Norman said. “We continue to work with our nursing homes to increase staffing to where they can take more patients, alleviating the strain on our hospitals,” he added.

Norman said there is enough vaccine available for everyone in the community and the unvaccinated employees.

“We have had difficulties in obtaining COVID-19 testing kits,” he said. “Long waiting lines for testing are not unique to our system. It is largely due to the highly transmissible nature of the omicron virus,” Norman added.

Some of the Penn Highlands facilities are prioritizing essential service surgeries and postponing elective ones.

“We have reduced hours at some of our Q-Care walk-in clinics due to the staffing,” said Norman.

Visitation is also limited at some facilities.

“Penn Highlands priority has been and continues to be the safety of staff and our patients,” Norman said. “We see people die every day due to the COVID virus…we encourage everyone to be safe and get vaccinated.”