Health care workers buckle down for predicted holiday COVID spikes

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ALBANY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — ‘Tis the season for family gatherings, warm meals, and spreading cheer. Unfortunately, healthcare workers are dreading how the holiday season may also spread coronavirus.

“I think people tend to let their guard down when they gather within their own household because that seems to be one of the fuels to the fire now,” says Dr. Steven Hanks, Chief Clinical Officer at Saint Peter’s Health Partners.

Hanks says Halloween already provided a significant pandemic spike. Gov. Andrew Cuomo says he expects even higher jumps after Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“The typical pattern that you see, and that we are seeing now, is that cold weather came, more people congregating indoors, it starts to spread in the community,” he explains to NEWS10’s Mikhaela Singleton.

Hanks says compared to the first COVID wave, doctors are now seeing many more infections coming from the community and people’s homes, as opposed to nursing and care facilities.

“In the late winter, early spring, it got into the nursing homes early on, because we didn’t have testing capabilities, we didn’t have the contact tracing, we didn’t have the isolation, and so it, of course, most seriously affected an already very vulnerable population. Now, we have a lid on that, so to speak,” he says. “However, we now know that the current strain that is circulating most predominantly worldwide now is a mutated strain that seems to have originated in Europe. This version seems to be much more contagious, though no more deadly.”

Fortunately, Dr. Hanks adds this time around they’re much better prepared. He says St. Peter’s and all the Capital Region hospitals cooperated to choose the same precautionary plans. Visitation is again limited outside a mother giving labor, end-of-life visits, and those with disabilities in need of a family member or specialized caretaker. He says local hospitals have also redesigned treatments and PPE protocols. All staff interacting with high-risk patients now follow the same intensive cleaning and PPE procedure, even if the patients test negative for coronavirus.

Hanks further adds they’ve restructured what a hospital stay might look like to curb COVID during and after the holidays.

“We’ve added an additional ICU so we have a non-COVID ICU, in addition to a COVID ICU. We’ve developed team models of care, because staffing is an issue across the entire country right now. That’s one of the most significant changes we’ve made,” he says.

He explains the new team model would increase patients for a nurse practitioner, who on average may usually only have six patients, to now around 10. However, he says that nurse would also be supported by a team of paraprofessionals.

“We have more and more staff out on quarantine because of exposures, either at work or in their community setting. We have more and more COVID positive colleagues,” he explains. “We are constantly tweaking the formula because we are battle-tested with it, but we are also battle-weary. These things are unsettling to people who are used to working a certain way, but team-based staffing and care is an important way we’re reacting to incoming surges we may experience.”

He adds so far in the second wave, deaths have decreased by half and there are fewer patients entering the most severe stages of COVID-19. At the height of the pandemic, around 20% of incoming COVID hospitalized patients rose to an increased enough need to require mechanical ventilation. Hanks says now that number is down to around 5%.

“We are finding more and more people are leaving the hospital after treatment without ever needing to be admitted into the ICU,” he says.

Hanks credits plasma and drug treatments developed throughout the pandemic, and a vaccine on the horizon has him very, very hopeful.

“We are now giving patients remdesivir, plasma, dexamethasone. These things are now being used in combination. The cavalry is on its way, as Dr. Fauci has said. Treatments are evolving and I do believe that probably by summer, this pandemic will be in the rearview mirror.”

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