Kern County hospital stays shorten during omicron wave

·3 min read

Jan. 26—Coronavirus hospitalizations in Kern County have been noticeably shorter over the past two months compared to previous surges, providing a vital lifeline to hospitals struggling with staffing and high patient counts.

According to the Kern County Public Health Services Department, the average length of stay in a hospital from Dec. 20 to Monday was around three days, compared to around nine days during the first three surges.

The shorter hospital stays have been linked to the omicron variant, which is more contagious than previous variants, but seems to present with less severe symptoms, according to health officials.

"Preliminarily, this review does show that the severity of symptoms appears much lower with this fourth surge than what we saw with previous surges," Kern Public Health Director Brynn Carrigan said in a presentation to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday. "However, it is important to note that hospitalization data is often not provided until the patient is discharged, meaning that the data from this fourth surge likely doesn't include patients with lengthier hospitalizations, as they haven't been discharged yet."

Still, local hospitals report patients have been staying for less time, even though more people than ever before are contracting COVID-19 each day.

"We're seeing, for the most part, even though omicron is more contagious, it seems like it's not as aggressive in how it attacks the person and how it makes them feel," said Dr. Hemmal Kothary, chief medical officer for Mercy Hospital Southwest. "We used to see a lot more pneumonia with delta, whereas with omicron, we're still seeing some pneumonia, but they're healing faster."

The report comes at the anticipated peak of the omicron surge. According to a state modeling system, Kern County was supposed to reach the peak number of daily COVID hospitalizations on Wednesday before a decline throughout February.

The California Department of Public Health reported 331 hospitalizations on Tuesday, with 57 patients in intensive care units. That's comparable to the peak number of hospitalizations caused by the delta surge last fall, although the delta variant saw 82 patients to the ICU in one day, according to the state.

Although the general public has been less likely to end up in the ICU compared to previous surges, hospital staff are more likely to get sick because of the virus. Both Adventist and Mercy hospitals reported staffing challenges due to the contagiousness of the omicron variant.

"We have a staff shortage," Kothary said. "Whereas in the past, delta wasn't so contagious, this one is just moving through like wildfire."

Many local hospitals have come to depend on "strike teams" provided by the state to maintain hospital capacity.

Adventist Health Bakersfield and Delano, along with Kern Medical, have taken advantage of two state strike teams to expand ICU capacity by 25 beds, and add an additional 15 beds to account for the surge, Kern County Public Health reported on Tuesday. Good Samaritan Hospital was supposed to be the beneficiary of a third state strike team to expand its ICU bed count by 14 on Wednesday.

Three additional strike teams consisting of six nurses and six paramedics each were assisting with offloading patients from ambulances in emergency rooms. An additional 11 ambulances, along with 22 crew members, have been helping with the surge in 911 calls the county has experienced recently.

Although doctors are split on when the omicron wave might peak in Kern County, there is cause for hope.

"The way we saw it in Africa and Europe, they call it the ice pick peak, where it goes up fast and then it comes down fast," said Dr. Ghassan Jamaleddine, chief medical officer at Adventist Health Kern County. "The fact that it is less virulent gives it a glimpse of optimism."

But big, crowded, events may continue the surge for the next few weeks, making the prediction of when the omicron cases might peak difficult.

"I'm keeping my fingers crossed," Jamaleddine said, "that it is starting to plateau and will come down in the next few days."

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.

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