As Montgomery County health data shows an uptick in the spread of illness, health officials said they were bracing for the impact of a trio of viruses—COVID, the flu and RSV—compounded by hospital staff shortages.
Over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, hospitalizations have spiked each January, after the holidays. This year, “transmission rates [for respiratory illnesses] have been much higher than they have been in the past,” said Sean O’Donnell, the county’s public health emergency preparedness manager.
While hospital visits are at 48% compared with the levels at this time last year, there’s still a potential to see a surge in the coming weeks, thanks to the holiday season and people congregating, he said during a media briefing Wednesday.
The county’s COVID-19 dashboard shows 70% of the county’s inpatient hospital beds were occupied, as of Dec. 26; a year prior, that data point stood at 68.4%. Similarly, 70.4% of the county’s intensive care beds are in use, according to the county’s COVID-19 dashboard; a year prior, that data point stood at 74.6%.
O’Donnell and other health officials said, however, that despite there being additional hospital capacity, those facilities are suffering from staff shortages — which are pronounced when there are surges that last weeks.
When that happens, patients spend more time in the care of emergency medical technicians and in ambulances, and not in hospitals, O’Donnell said. And that means it can take longer for those patients to get care, and for ambulances and personnel to get back into the field, he said.
“We are concerned that at this point, it’s not that we’re running out of hospital resources, it’s that it’s taking longer for patients to get into them,” O’Donnell said.
Earlier this month, Kisha Davis, the county’s health officer, and other Department of Health and Human Services officials issued an advisory that recommended mask wearing in congregate settings. They also urged residents to be up to date on their COVID booster and flu shots, and asked county residents to test for COVID and isolate if they experience symptoms, whether they are from COVID, the flu or other illnesses.
Even though the flu and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) are more prevalent this year, COVID is still far more deadly, O’Donnell said. There were 32 COVID deaths in Montgomery County in December, he said. There have been 21 deaths due to influenza across all of Maryland this season, he added.
James Bridgers, a senior official who served as acting health officer before Davis began work earlier this month, said that he and colleagues continue to talk about the current public health landscape with hospitals, congregate settings and correctional facilities. Issues include hospital capacity and making sure staff are up to date on vaccines, Bridgers said.
Hospitals might not be overflowing with patients, but the situation is serious, he added.
“When you think about … when does it become alarming? It’s alarming now,” Bridgers said. “We’ve had conversations with our county executive who raised some concerns … [as we] anticipate a post-holiday surge. So we began this planning early on in the month and increasing those conversations.”
Ultimately, officials recommend currently mask wearing and other precautions—including hand washing, COVID testing, and other measures—because of the level of hospitalizations.