After lower COVID-19 case levels within the last couple of weeks, one Panhandle hospital administrator is hopeful that strain on local hospitals will ease in the coming weeks.
“I think we’re seeing kind of the backside of a flip that we have had in the last few weeks,” Jason Petik, chief executive officer of Sidney Regional Medical Center in Sidney, said during Wednesday’s Panhandle Public Health District briefing. “If we would have been having this conversation, two, three weeks ago, we would have been talking a little bit of talking a little bit of a different story.”
At Sidney Memorial Hospital, he reported there were times in the recent upsurge of cases when the hospital had jumped up to eight patients. Now, the hospital is reporting one to two cases at a time.
However, in recent weeks, neighboring Colorado is reporting high levels of COVID cases. On Wednesday, according to Colorado Public Radio, the state reported its highest level of hospitalizations since last December, with 1,526 hospitalizations. Colorado hospitals had stopped accepting out-of-state ICU patients, operating in “crisis care mode” earlier this month, which affected hospital transfers from neighboring states.
Petik reported difficulties in being able to transfer patients to other in-state hospitals or to Colorado has presented problems for all of the hospitals in the Panhandle.
The inability to transfer patients to a larger hospital providing a higher level of care “changes the ballgame quite a bit,” he said. He estimated it had been about 30 days that Sidney’s hospital had been unable to transfer patients to Colorado. In just the last week, he said, they were able to find beds for two or three patients in Colorado hospitals, but for the last two to three weeks, health officials have struggled.
“To show you the other side of the coin, a week ago, the closest hospital that we could send somebody who needed surgical care right away, with COVID positive, was via an air flight, fixed wing flight to Kansas City. That just tells you how far we had to send people to find beds that could take care of someone at a higher level of care,” he said.
“...What it comes down to is whether or not someone may live or die,” Petik said when asked to explain the importance of being able to transfer patients. “If you are not able to transfer that person out, and you don’t have the level of care or services available ... their outcome is significantly less that it was if we could transfer them.”
He cited stroke patients or heart attack patients as types of patients who may need levels of care that a hospital may need to transfer a patient to another hospital.
Over the holiday season, Petik said, health officials believe that we’ll see another uptick in cases. Panhandle Public Health Director Kim Engel spoke about other areas of the state seeing an increase in cases, after reporting a drop-off for a few weeks, again. Cases are reported to be up nearly 20% over the past two weeks in Nebraska, according to CDC data. Hospitalizations have also been increasing. Last week, Gov. Pete Ricketts again allowed the reporting of hospitalization and other COVID data on the state dashboard. The dashboard is also now reporting RSV and flu hospitalizations, which have seen increases in other areas of the country in recent weeks.
Overall, COVID numbers in the Panhandle have been on the decline, as Petik said. The Panhandle is reporting 564 cases per 10,000 people over the last 14 days, down from 681 cases per 100,000 reported on Nov. 8. However, PPHD reported 232 deaths have been confirmed in the Panhandle, which is up eight deaths since Nov. 3 and 14 deaths remain pending verification.
Also, most of the Panhandle’s counties remain at high risk for spread. The same counties that have been at the top of case numbers over the last few months remain so this week: Scotts Bluff, Cheyenne, Box Butte and Morrill counties. Scotts Bluff County continues to top the cases, with 139 cases reported this week. Last week, 250 cases were reported in the Panhandle.
Twenty-eight hospitalizations were reported. By Friday, 31 hospitalizations were being reported on the PPHD dashboard. Last week, ICU bed availability was at a low of 18% but it has improved to 27% this week, according to the PPHD dashboard. Hospital bed availability is at 32% and ventilator availability is at 79%
In the Nov. 10 PPHD briefing, Dr. June Steely, medical director for Nomi Health, spoke about the importance of COVID testing. Nomi Health is the organization that provided TestNebraska testing until July 2021 and is now providing testing throughout Nebraska, including in Scottsbluff.
As cases in Nebraska were reported to be on the rise again, she urged people to test for COVID-19 if they were experiencing symptoms or had been exposed to COVID 19. Testing is key to minimizing the spread of COVID-19, in addition to other preventative measures
In vaccine activity, the Panhandle is reporting 38.09% of people are fully vaccinated, up from 37.77%. Engel said that officials expect the numbers of children to grow as the Pfizer vaccine is now available for children, ages 5 years old and up.
On Friday, the Food and Drug Administration have opened up the Pfizer and Moderna booster shoots to all adults. Late Friday, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention also agreed to expand the shots. The booster shots have already been approved for persons who suffer a long list of health conditions.
A list of clinics offering the vaccine is available on pphd.org. A list of COVID-19 testing sites is also on the website.