While omicron symptoms are mild for some, COVID is again overwhelming OKC hospital staff, ERs

Dana Branham
Oklahoman

Oklahoma City hospitals are struggling to stay afloat again as another COVID-19 surge has taken hold. 

Each wave of the pandemic has had its own flavor, hospital leaders said in interviews this week. This one has so far been marked by a sudden rush of cases driven by the ultra-contagious omicron variant, emergency rooms overwhelmed by people seeking out COVID-19 tests, and worsened staffing troubles. 

While the omicron variant so far seems less brutal on the lungs compared with the delta variant, it still has the capacity to crush the health care system, Oklahoma City hospital leaders said. And it can still cause severe illness, especially among those who haven’t been vaccinated, they warned.

People work at the covid testing site at Crest in Edmond, Okla.,  Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022.

“If it were mild, we wouldn't be struggling. But we are,” said Dr. Julie Watson, senior vice president and chief medical officer for Integris Health. “If omicron were mild, your health systems wouldn't be crying out for help.”

Every day recently, the health system has had 20 or more patients waiting in the emergency room for beds to open up. Waiting rooms have been packed — people with a mix of urgent medical needs, but also many people with mild symptoms who want to be tested for COVID-19. And in the last two weeks, the number of Integris workers out sick has more than tripled, Watson said.

“We have some of our senior executive leaders who are cleaning ER rooms right now,” she said. “Our chief nurse executive, Kerri Bayer, who's been with Integris for 23 years, said to me two nights ago that she's never in her career seen the ER at Baptist the way that it was.”

More:Oklahoma reports more COVID-19 cases than peak of summer wave; hospitalizations surging too

A COVID-19 test is administered at a drive-through in Oklahoma City on Wednesday. Hospital leaders have pleaded with the public to refrain from seeking COVID-19 testing at emergency rooms, saying their ERs have been inundated.

COVID testing leads to overwhelmed emergency departments

This week, Mercy has seen record high emergency department volumes in Oklahoma City and Edmond, said Dr. Lance Watson, medical director for the ER at Mercy Hospital Oklahoma City. Staff have had to sort through “who’s really, really sick, and who just needs a test,” he said. 

“It can be demoralizing at times,” he said. “You see people that are having to wait for several hours out in the waiting room, and you know they’re sick, you know they don’t feel well. As a physician, as a nurse, your goal is to help people. You want to be able to see them as quickly as possible.” 

He urged people to do everything they can to find a COVID-19 test outside of an emergency room. At the same time, it’s important people not ignore serious symptoms that require emergency treatment. 

“I don't want to go back to where we were at the very start of the [pandemic],” he said. “People ignore symptoms, thinking, 'I don't want to burden the ER,’ and yet they sit at home with a heart attack. Or they get to a point that they're breathing so bad that when they come in, we have to put them right on a ventilator.” 

Health leaders fear that ERs crowded with non-emergencies could mean delayed care for someone who really needs it. 

“That's what really terrifies us the most — you can't look out into a waiting room and tell by looking who is there who has a pending heart attack, or some sort of condition for which they need to get back to be seen by a physician or provider,” said Julie Watson, of Integris. 

More:Where can I get a COVID-19 test in and around Oklahoma City?

People line up for a COVID test recently at Crest in Edmond.

Omicron symptoms may be milder — but not for everyone

Omicron symptoms for those who have been vaccinated — and especially those who have received a booster dose — are generally mild. 

“We do know that the sizable portion of people that haven't been vaccinated have a different experience with omicron than those that have,” said Dr. Kersey Winfree, chief medical officer for SSM Health St. Anthony.

Unlike with delta, in this wave, fewer patients are requiring advanced respiratory therapy and interventions to rescue them, Winfree said. That means fewer are winding up on ventilators, and people aren’t staying in the hospital as long as before. 

But omicron can exacerbate existing health conditions, and those cases may not be so mild. 

“If you have a weak heart, or if you have a weakened immune system, or if you already have chronic lung disease, omicron can make those conditions worse,” Winfree said. “That's probably the highest number of people that we're seeing hospitalized: people with underlying chronic conditions or predisposition to infections because they haven't been vaccinated, for example, are getting sicker and requiring more advanced hospital care.”

More:Who needs a COVID-19 booster dose? Here's where you can get one in Oklahoma City

OKC hospitals face staffing troubles

Even though omicron so far has not been as virulent as the delta variant, “its capacity to overwhelm our delivery system is very real, very imminent and much greater than past strains,” Winfree said. 

That’s largely because hospitals are facing this surge with less staff than they had for previous waves, he said. 

More than 1,000 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 across the state, according to Friday’s update from the state health department. That’s lower than the state has seen during previous surges, but hospital leaders said their capacity for more patients this time around likely will be lower. 

As in previous surges, there’s not a lack of physical space for more patients, said Julie Watson, of Integris. It’s a matter of having fewer caregivers for patients. 

More:COVID boosters protect against omicron, but over 60% of eligible Oklahomans haven't gotten one

“We have fewer beds to put people in that have the people to take care of them,” she said. “But this is a preventable illness. And were we more vaccinated as a state, we would absolutely have even fewer hospitalizations.”

Complicating existing staff shortages is how many more health care workers are seeing breakthrough cases with the omicron variant and then must isolate themselves.

Those breakthrough cases tend to be mild, said Lance Watson, with Mercy. But in following CDC guidelines, staff who are infected spend a minimum of five days in isolation. 

“Even that five days can make a huge difference in our staffing,” he said. “With a highly contagious variant like this, you might have four or five people that have to go off the schedule at once. That creates a lot of barriers in your staffing matrix.” 

Health leaders stressed that people should get vaccinated and take precautions to avoid spreading the virus to others. 

“The very, very high contagiousness of this virus really makes all the things that we know about social distancing, wearing masks, keeping ourselves protected by doing good hand hygiene — it makes all that extra, extra important,” said Winfree.

To find a vaccine appointment near you, visit vaccines.gov or the state’s vaccine scheduling portal at vaccinate.oklahoma.gov.