Our hospitals are straining under COVID-19, but there are simple ways to fix that

YORK DISPATCH EDITORIAL BOARD

On Monday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency dispatched 23 doctors, nurses and other specialists to WellSpan York Hospital to bolster a system straining under the demands of COVID-19.

We're glad to have the group, which includes U.S. Air Force physicians, nurses and respiratory technicians. And we're grateful for the 30 additional beds they'll staff.

But we're also sad, and perhaps a little angry, that it's come to this.

A U.S. Air Force medical response team attends a joint reception, staging, onward movement and integration brief on mission requirements and guidelines while supporting COVID response operations at WellSpan Education Center in York, Pennsylvania, Jan. 1, 2022.

The hospital is treating more COVID-19 patients — 220 as of Monday — than at any other point during the pandemic, a figure that's on track to continue to rise as the inevitable post-holiday wave crests in the days and weeks to come.

At least some of this should've been preventable through vaccines, masking and a little common sense.

But you don't have to travel very far in York County to find a dearth of that.

You see it in the stores, where masks are now the exception — not the rule. You see it on social media, where every misguided fool with a phone thinks they're a Ph.D. And, of course, you see it in the intensive care unit, where some of those fools end up struggling to breathe.

Despite emerging as a new, more virulent strain of COVID-19, omicron comes with some good news.

This new strain, despite being far more easily spread, is actually milder in presentation — at least for those who've been vaccinated or who don't already have compromised immune systems.

Unfortunately, the death toll will continue to mount because of how easily omicron spreads from person to person and how many people have resisted the most basic measures of self-preservation.

Like the previous variants, omicron spreads from the mouth and nose via respiratory droplets that float through the air and can remain suspended there, particularly in rooms with poor ventilation. The difference is that it appears that more of the virus remains in the upper respiratory system — the nose and throat — where it easily escapes into the air.

"Potentially you could be shedding more virus in your upper respiratory tract than you would be if most of the replication was happening deep in your lungs," Angie Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, told NPR.

Researchers are still learning why this variant is spreading so quickly — and what the long-range consequences could be — but a few things are already clear:

1. You stand a much better chance if you're vaccinated.

2. Wearing a mask in public won't necessarily prevent a breakthrough case but it certainly helps protect yourself and others.

3. The fewer people who take these two basic steps, the more who will end up in the ICU, stressing an already overwhelmed health system.

"We ask our communities to remain vigilant in safety measures related to the pandemic," WellSpan said in a statement Monday. "Most of all, we ask those eligible in our communities to get vaccinated. It is the most effective way to reduce hospitalizations resulting from COVID-19."

WellSpan Surgery and Rehab Hospital at 55 Monument Road Monday, Jan. 3, 2022. Bill Kalina photo

We don't have a crystal ball, but you don't need one to see what's coming.

Our hospitals will continue to struggle under the strain of mostly preventable COVID-19 cases. And the selfish fools who refuse basic measures won't voluntarily give up their hospital beds to car crash, heart attack and stroke victims who have the misfortune of needing emergency care during a pandemic.

Ditto all the elective procedures that our hospitals keep deferring. Eventually, those elective surgeries become emergencies, too.

Be smart: Get vaccinated. Wear a mask. Avoid large crowds.