Facing record COVID-19 hospitalizations and a surge in cases, Sentara Healthcare is postponing non-emergency surgeries and procedures at its hospitals along with diagnostic testing, starting Jan. 10, according to a Friday announcement.
“Sentara hospitals are currently treating more COVID-19 patients than ever before,” the company said in a news release. “The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Sentara facilities more than doubled within the week and more than quadrupled within the last month.”
Sentara owns Albemarle County-based Martha Jefferson Hospital. The local hospital has seen an increasing number of patients with COVID-19, up to 33 on Friday, which is about one-fifth of its hospital patients, according to a Sentara dashboard.
Officials with the University of Virginia Medical Center said Friday that they have about 82 COVID-19 patients. As of Wednesday, UVa was averaging about 12 new hospitalizations over a seven-day period, a record high.
Yet, UVa is not restricting elective procedures, officials said Friday. Because UVa utilizes a recently constructed and completed multi-story portion of the hospital for COVID care, the hospital is able to expand and contract COVID units as needed.
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“We are feeling the same thing that everywhere in the state is feeling, which is the increasing number of COVID admissions,” said Dr. Reid Adams, chief medical officer for UVa Medical Center. “We’ve been able to open additional COVID units to accommodate those patients. So far we’ve been able to keep up with the volume.”
So far this month, the Blue Ridge Health District has reported 56 new hospitalizations and 2,260 new cases. Both of those figures are significantly higher than usual this early into the month as holiday gatherings and more transmissible variants fuel the surge.
Statewide, the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association reported that 3,329 people were currently hospitalized due to COVID-19, which was a record. Sentara said that the majority of those in its hospital for COVID-19 are unvaccinated.
Sentara and UVa encouraged community members to get vaccinated and boosted, if eligible. Those affected by the pause also should stay in touch with their physicians.
Sentara said in its news release that current surge is stretching employees to their capacity. All affected procedures, surgeries and diagnostic testing will be moved to a later date after the current surge has passed. The pause will allow hospitals to reassign staff to other areas.
“The current strain on all healthcare facilities is undeniable. We must balance the urgent need to care for large numbers of COVID-19 patients with what is being asked of our dedicated staff,” said Mike Gentry, Sentara Healthcare Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer. “We cannot care for our community without first supporting our team members as they so expertly manage this large number of patients.”
Earlier this week, Sentara Healthcare and other Virginia hospitals encouraged community members to only visit the emergency department if experiencing an emergency or worsening COVID-19 symptoms.
Those who have been exposed to COVID-19 should not go to the emergency department for a COVID-19 test, according to the release.
Wendy Horton, chief executive officer for UVa Health, Horton said patients with symptoms of serious COVID, heart, stroke or other issues are still encouraged to seek needed treatment. Doctors said people with high fevers or difficulty breathing should seek treatment either at a doctor’s office or at the hospital.
“We want people who really are sick to come to the emergency department to get that care, but from a COVID testing perspective, we’re really encouraging people not to come to the emergency department,” Horton said.
Getting tested can be difficult. Over-the-counter rapid tests are in short supply and local testing events have been packed with hours-long waits.
Officials recommend finding test kits and keeping them available at home, if possible.
“With a little bit of persistence, you can get the rapid antigen at-home tests like those found at local drug stores,” said Dr. Bill Petri, chief of the UVa’s division of infectious diseases. “It probably entails going back to a store and making several trips until they come in.”
Petri said having the tests at home will allow people to test for omicron, the symptoms of which can range from sneezing or a stuffy nose to fever and shortness of breath.
“Rapid tests can take several days to show positive, so it’s best to test over several days to make sure you’re not infected,” he said.
Bryan McKenzie contributed to this report.