Local hospitals, including Mission, are once again reeling under a perfect storm of pandemic pressures: record infection rates, overwhelmingly among people who refuse to be vaccinated; a sudden spike in the number of healthcare workers who are infected, on top of an already critical staffing shortage; and a shortage of COVID-19 test kits.
The latest surge began Dec. 27, following Christmas gatherings, William Hathaway, Mission’s chief medical officer, reported to the hospital’s medical staff on Monday. Children and people under the age of 44 are among the fastest-growing groups of patients, he said, and the rise in infected doctors, nurses, and other healthcare workers who care for them was almost literally off the charts.
State and local official reports indicate that there are now more COVID-19 infections in the Asheville metropolitan area than at any time since the pandemic began two years ago.
“In the past weekend alone, we have seen a 71 percent increase in patients hospitalized for COVID,” Jay Kirby, President and CEO of Pardee UNC Health Care in Hendersonville said in a memo to staff on Monday. Kirby said the hospital has temporarily paused all elective inpatient and outpatient surgeries, as well as all elective cardiac procedures. It briefly closed two urgent care locations because of staffing shortages but said Tuesday morning the facilities in Fletcher and Mills River had reopened.
“We will continue to meet all emergent and critical surgery needs,” he said.
Nancy Lindell, director of public and media relations for the North Carolina Division of HCA Healthcare, which operates Mission Hospital, told The Watchdog that “as of 8 a.m., Monday, Jan. 10, there are 89 COVID-positive inpatients in Mission Hospital; that number has doubled in the past month.”
“The vast majority of COVID positive inpatients are unvaccinated,” Lindell said. “The number of staff who are testing positive for COVID has risen in the past weeks. Every caregiver is essential, so even the roughly one percent of our team home on quarantine pay are missed.”
With an estimated 10,500 employees, a 1 percent sick call rate for the six-hospital Mission Health system would mean roughly 105 workers in quarantine. In his presentation to Mission medical staff on Monday, Hathaway showed a slide indicating that more than 180 Mission employees at HCA’s six hospitals in western North Carolina tested positive last week, and more than 170 tested positive the week before.
As a result, Hathaway said, the hospital is reverting to “contingency” staffing rules to cope with the surge in infected patients. Any Mission healthcare worker, vaccinated or unvaccinated, who tests positive for COVID-19 will be able to return to work, masked, after five days with or without a negative test, if he or she does not exhibit more than mild COVID symptoms, he said.
“We are urging our community members who have not yet been vaccinated to please do so,” Lindell said. “While the vaccine has not been as effective against the Omicron variant, it continues to be extremely effective in keeping people from having to be hospitalized and from dying.”
Hathaway said the latest data indicate that unvaccinated people are 10 times more likely to become infected, and 20 times more likely to die, than those who are fully vaccinated.
Since January 2020, at least 1 in 7 people who live in the Asheville metro area — all or portions of Buncombe, Henderson, Madison, and Haywood counties — have been infected, and at least 1 in 494 people have died, records indicate.
For the past week, the daily average of new COVID cases has risen 232 percent, to 551 a day, according to state and local healthcare reports.
“We do not expect the peak of omicron to arrive until a few more weeks,” Kirby, Pardee’s CEO, said Monday.
[Editor’s note: This story was updated Tuesday morning to include the reopening of two urgent care centers that had been briefly closed because of staffing shortages. We also corrected the number of employees for the Mission Health system, which was used to estimate the number of infected healthcare workers.]
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Peter H. Lewis is a former senior writer and editor at The New York Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org