ALBANY — Hospitals in the eight Capital Region counties said Tuesday they will begin to limit elective surgical procedures to boost their ability to treat COVID-19 patients.
The COVID patient census hit 417 in the region’s hospitals Tuesday, 70 of them in the intensive care unit, and the concern is that another surge of patients sick with the virus will start to arrive in early January, after Christmas celebrations.
Leaders of the hospitals, who began collaborating on a response to the pandemic before it reached New York, have been holding daily conference calls ever since. They held one of their periodic public updates Tuesday at Albany Medical Center and announced their decision to start conserving resources.
If the situation gets much worse, further limitations will be self-imposed on non-urgent surgeries that require more than a one-day stay at a hospital.
“That’s how serious we consider the situation,” said Dr. Fred Venditti, hospital general director at Albany Medical Center.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered elective procedures halted statewide this spring amid the first wave of the pandemic to conserve space, resources and personnel for treatment of the virus. Hospital capacity remains a key concern of public health officials now as the positive COVID test rate rises daily in most of the state.
The state’s database indicates that a single-day maximum of 205 COVID patients was being treated in Capital Region hospitals in the first wave, this spring. It indicates the total stood at 362 on Monday, but Venditti said the actual number was higher Monday, and hit 417 on Tuesday.
Dr. Steven Hanks, chief clinical officer at St. Peter’s Health Partners, said there should be no shortage of hospital beds in the near-term, nor constraints on testing, nor a shortage of supplies, nor any need to set up emergency field hospitals.
“What we’re worried about,” he said, “is our ability to staff those beds.”
The baseline positivity rate has roughly doubled in a month because of the Thanksgiving holiday, Hanks said, and two more traditional big get-together holidays are coming in the next nine days.
“Our big fear is that if people do not heed the counsel, we’re going to see that test positivity rate tick up again,” he said.
Mid-January is when this next big peak of infections and hospitalizations would materialize, he added.
Dr. David Liebers, chief medical officer of Ellis Medicine in Schenectady, noted that the seven-day average test positivity rate in the Capital Region has jumped from around 1 percent in early November to 7 percent now.
Schenectady County was even worse as of Monday: 8.9 percent, one of the highest among the state’s counties.
Liebers said 75 percent of the infections are being traced to small private gatherings.
“Keep the celebrations really as household celebrations,” he advised.
As of Monday, the Capital Region:
- Has the third-highest positive test rate among the state’s 10 regions at 7.0 percent.
- Is tied with Long Island for the lowest percentage of available hospital beds at 25 percent.
- Fares better than the state average for number of new hospitalizations and new infections per-capita.
VACCINE AND TESTING
Also Tuesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo gave an update on the COVID vaccine and on diagnostic testing.
Cuomo said the state has conducted 4,000 random analyses of standard COVID tests so far looking for the new variant of the COVID-19 virus associated with the United Kingdom.
It is believed to be much more easily transmitted than previous variants, and has prompted a rapid shutdown in the U.K. as well as travel restrictions.
All tests conducted in New York have come back negative so far, but the state wants to ratchet up the search so it can respond quickly if the new variant arrives here.
The test for the new variant is more complicated than standard COVID tests; the state will be gathering samples from Albany Med and other hospitals for analysis at Wadsworth Laboratory in Albany.
The state has received 630,000 doses so far and expects about 300,000 more by the end of next week, he said during a conference call with reporters. So far, 50,000 doses have been administered, mostly to frontline caregivers, but staff and residents of 618 nursing homes statewide are starting to be vaccinated as well.
Among those getting their first shots Monday and Tuesday were patients and staff at the Stratton VA Medical center in Albany, medical providers in Schoharie County and employees of Nathan Littauer Hospital in Gloversville, 51 of whom boarded a bus for a vaccination site in Utica.
Albany Med is the regional hub for distribution of the vaccine for the mass vaccination campaign to come.
CEO Dr. Dennis McKenna said Tuesday that the hospital already has vaccinated nearly 1,000 of its employees and is assembling a 60-member task force from various sectors of the Capital Region community to come up with a plan for the wider campaign.
“We will partner with the state Department of Health and local community organizations to distribute the vaccine safely, equitably and efficiently across the region,” he said.
In other COVID-related developments Tuesday:
- State officials reported 139 new COVID-19 deaths statewide; so far this week, the death toll reported by counties in the Capital Region has jumped by two each in Albany and Saratoga counties, four in Rensselaer County and five in Schenectady County.
- Warren County reported 36 new infections, its highest single-day total yet; Warren and neighboring Washington County have had among the lowest cumulative positive test rates in the state but are trending upward recently.
- Fulton County hit double digits on positive test rate — 10 percent on average over the last seven days.
- Montgomery County hit quadruple digits on confirmed infections — 1,031 since March.
- Albany International Airport became the first airport in the state, second in the nation and fourth in the world to gain top-level accreditation for its cleaning and disinfecting protocols from the Global Biorisk Advisory Council created by a cleaning industry trade association.