Amsterdam, Gloversville hospitals feel strain of higher COVID rate, smaller staff

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AMSTERDAM — The latest COVID spike in Montgomery and Fulton counties has so far been manageable, the two local hospitals said Wednesday, but it is stretching their resources.

Positive test rates and the number of new infections per capita in the two counties are some of the highest among the state’s 62 counties and roughly triple the statewide rate.

Meanwhile, Montgomery County’s and particularly Fulton County’s vaccination rates lag behind many other counties and the state as a whole.

As they deal with this increased flow of people who need to be tested and treated, St. Mary’s Healthcare and Nathan Littauer Hospital also are dealing with the same situation facing many hospitals across New York and the nation: Staffing shortages.

Nearly 21 months after the first case of COVID was confirmed in New York, many health care professionals and support staff are burnt out, or have retired, or are off the job because they refused the vaccine ultimatum presented to them.

MONTGOMERY COUNTY

St. Mary’s Healthcare in Amsterdam had nine COVID-positive inpatients on Wednesday morning. This compares with 20 in October, the most so far since the arrival of the easily transmitted Delta variant. Daily patient counts reached the mid-30s early this year when COVID was at its worst in Montgomery County.

The patients sick with COVID are a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated but the majority are unvaccinated and their symptoms are typically more severe than those suffered by vaccinated patients.

(“Breakthrough” COVID infections in people fully vaccinated against the virus have been on the rise for months, as the vaccines aren’t 100% effective to start and apparently grow less effective as time passes from when they are administered.)

“We know the effectiveness wanes slightly and that is why the COVID booster is so important,” St. Mary’s spokesman Richard Hyde said Wednesday. 

“Fulton and Montgomery counties are rising in COVID positivity, lagging in terms of vaccination rates, and we continue to stand by the fact that the vaccine is our best way through this continuing COVID challenge,” Hyde said.

Montgomery County had a remarkably mild experience with the pandemic early on, with relatively few infections and deaths through much of 2020 compared with many other counties statewide.

That streak ended about a year ago when the positive test rate ramped up and scores of residents died. 

The virus later subsided in the county, then began ramping up again in late summer.

Public Health Director Sara Boerenko said Wednesday she doesn’t see one single factor that has put COVID infections on the upswing again in the county. More people are being tested because they have to be tested to go to work, school or events, and this is revealing more positives, she said, some of them without symptoms.

“We need to shift how we see COVID in our community from a pandemic to an endemic, much like we view other communicable diseases,” Boerenko said. “I don’t think there is any one indicator that has changed the data other than people, providers, and the community are experiencing COVID fatigue and burnout.”

She added: “Today makes day 613 since our first positive case of COVID in Montgomery County and I continue to monitor COVID rates and vaccination rates but social isolation, mental health, depression, anxiety, substance use, overdose rates are really where the COVID story should focus.”

St. Mary’s on Tuesday posted the first of what Hyde said would be a series of video updates. The message offered by CEO Scott Bruce and pediatrician Dr. Mahvash Majeed is that the hospital and its satellite facilities are seeing record patient volumes and are likely to remain busy.

Bruce explained that St. Mary’s is having trouble maintaining staffing, and it has reactivated its dedicated COVID test site to free up space for other purposes. Majeed said the number and severity of COVID cases have increased at St. Mary’s since September and the community vaccination rate is lagging.

“It’s as tough a situation as I’ve ever seen,” Bruce said, noting that other healthcare providers in the region and employers, in general, are having similar problems maintaining an adequate workforce.

Hyde said the situation is not entirely due to COVID: Emergency Department patient volume varies sharply with no apparent reason, with one day bringing perhaps 50% more patients than the previous day.

Last week’s orientation day for new employees was one of the largest groups of new hires in a while, Hyde said, but that won’t by itself eliminate the staffing shortage, and patient wait times may be longer as a result.

“At this time, St. Mary’s does not anticipate any major disruptions to services other than a previously announced pause at the Charlton Urgent Care and lab services at Canajoharie and Gloversville,” he added.

Some statistics provided Wednesday by the state Department of Health for Montgomery County:

  • 64.7% of the population is at least partially vaccinated, compared with 72.9% statewide.
  • The average positive COVID test rate over the past seven days is 11.3%, compared with 3.5% statewide.
  • There were 8.09 new COVID infections per 10,000 residents on average per day over the past seven days, compared with 2.91 statewide.
  • Through Tuesday, 6,757 COVID infections have been confirmed among Montgomery County’s roughly 49,500 residents and 159 resident deaths have been reported by healthcare facilities.

FULTON COUNTY

In Fulton County’s only hospital, COVID continues to cause a strain.

Nathan Littauer Hospital said Wednesday that its COVID-positive patient census has been fluctuating but has been generally trending higher. There were seven infected patients Wednesday morning, down from 10 over the weekend and up from zero not too long ago.

All seven were unvaccinated, spokeswoman Cheryl McGrattan said, and four were in intensive care as of Wednesday morning.

Seven may not seem like a lot, she said, but it’s a significant caseload at a small community hospital.

It’s manageable at this point, she said, but at this point “Our biggest concern is staffing.”

Littauer is short-staffed like many other healthcare facilities. As of Wednesday, it was advertising dozens of job vacancies it is trying to fill. Numerous positions carry hiring bonuses ranging from $500 for aides to $15,000 for full-time registered nurses.

Looking into the near-term future, the hospital is concerned that the upcoming holiday season will bring people together in a county with one of the lowest vaccination rates in the state, McGrattan said.

Some statistics provided Wednesday by the state Department of Health for Fulton County:

  • 50.7% of the population is at least partially vaccinated, compared with 72.9% statewide; this is the fourth-lowest among the state’s 62 counties.
  • The average positive COVID test rate over the past seven days is 12.6%, compared with 3.5% statewide.
  • There were 8.58 new COVID infections per 10,000 residents on average per day over the past seven days, compared with 2.91 statewide.
  • Through Tuesday, 7,344 COVID infections have been confirmed among Fulton County’s roughly 53,000 residents and 108 resident deaths have been reported by healthcare facilities.
By John Cropley

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