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Pennsylvania's hospitals are already strained and omicron will likely make it worse

Patrick Doyle
90.5 WESA
Earlier this year, UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh set up a tent outside its emergency department in order to meet historic levels of demand.

Pennsylvania’s second COVID-19 winter was already projected to be rough due to the delta variant, and with omicron the picture looks even bleaker.

While delta is still the dominant variant in the U.S., omicron is spreading fast and has now been identified in 45 states, including Pennsylvania. As of Friday, the state’s department of health confirmed six cases of omicron. None of these six were identified in the western part of the state, though it’s extremely likely that omicron has already reached the Pittsburgh area.

In light of this, medical experts say it’s more important than ever to get vaccinated and boosted.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that just 65% of Allegheny County’s residents who are age 5 or older are fully vaccinated, for adults the rate is just under 70%. The CDC, which doesn’t provide booster data on the county level, reports that 21% of fully vaccinated Pennsylvanians have gotten an additional shot, which is available to those 16 and older.

Research is inconclusive as to how much protection an additional dose provides against the new variant, but having a COVID-19 booster does decrease one’s odds of a breakthrough case, which is far more likely with omicron.

On top of the vaccine, face masks and physical distancing continue to work against omicron despite it being more infectious than previous variants. However, in absence of mitigation orders — such as mask mandates — it will be easy for omicron to spread through Pennsylvania. Especially because after nearly two years of dealing with COVID-19, people are far less willing to put their holiday plans on hold.

It’s unclear at this point if omicron is less likely to cause severe illness compared to other variants. But it’s projected to infect enough people that even a lower portion of cases that need intense care could further strain a medical system that’s already under profound stress.

Statewide COVID-19 hospitalizations are at their second highest peak since the start of the pandemic. Add on staffing shortages, influenza patients and people seeking medical care that was delayed earlier in the pandemic, and some facilities are in crisis or on the verge of one.

For example, UPMC Bedford is the only hospital in Bedford County, which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in western Pennsylvania. Dr. David Burwell, the hospital’s chief quality officer, told WESA on Friday that all the beds in Bedford’s intensive care and telemetry units were completely full.

What’s perhaps more troubling is that, according to Burwell, some non-UPMC community hospitals have been so overwhelmed that they will sometimes decline patients. “That puts a pretty significant strain, especially on [emergency medical services,] where folks are driving for long ranges, past our facility.”

Burwell declined to say which hospitals have recently turned away patients, only noting that this is more common among facilities that are not linked to larger health systems.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.