Hospitals, clinics busy as COVID surges in Warren, Washington counties

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GLENS FALLS — As Warren and Washington counties record some of the highest rates of COVID-19 in the state, their only hospital and two of their largest medical practices are warning of the danger facing area residents.

Glens Falls Hospital has more than 50 COVID-positive patients, the most ever in the 20-month pandemic, while Hudson Headwaters Health Network and Irongate Family Practice are seeing unprecedented patient volume, the three said in a joint statement Tuesday.

Health officials in the two counties share the medical providers’ concern that this worst-ever surge has come even before Thanksgiving. Last year, the holiday, with all its family gatherings, was the starting point for the major COVID surge across upstate New York in December 2020 and January 2021.

“Be vigilant,” a Glens Falls Hospital spokesman said. “Assume when you go into a crowded situation that you are going to get exposed.”

The latest county-level infection data was not posted Tuesday on the state’s online dashboard.

Sunday data posted Monday showed that for the seven preceding days, Washington County had by far the highest number of news cases per capita of any of the state’s 62 counties: 131.7 per 100,000 population. Its positive test rate was 13.3%, second in the state after 13.6% in Cattaraugus County.

Warren County’s seven-day positive test rate was 9.4% and its new case rate was 91.8 per 100,000. Both metrics are among the highest in the state.

The eight-county Capital Region, by comparison, had seven-day averages of 6.8% positive and 56.5 new cases per 100,000.

Spokesman Ray Agnew said Glens Falls Hospital budgets itself to operate at about 130 patients a day.

“As of just a few minutes ago we have 206 patients in the hospital and 51 are COVID patients,” he said Tuesday afternoon. 

The 16-bed ICU is near capacity with 15 patients, seven of them COVID-positive. The hospital is licensed for 390 beds in total, but physical capacity is not the problem now. Lack of medical personnel to care for all these patients is the limiting factor.

The hospital has 200 vacancies in its workforce. Some were created by the departure of employees who refused to vaccinate, but the problem has persisted for more than a year, long before the vaccine mandate deadline in September.

Saratoga County, which neighbors Warren and Washington counties, is seeing an uptick of its own. More people are getting sick there, and Saratoga’s positive test rate and new case incidence is higher than either the region or the state as a whole.

Saratoga Hospital is feeling pressure as a result.

“We currently have 36 COVID patients, which represents a steady uptick over the past few weeks,” spokesman Peter Hopper said. “Our emergency department and inpatient volumes have been consistently high over the same timeframe.”

Saratoga Hospital, like Glens Falls Hospital and most others around the state, has a smaller than optimal workforce.

“We have an incredible staff, doing their very best, but we are asking a lot of each and every one of them,” Potter said. “We ask everyone in our community to do what they can do to be safe, to not let their guard down, and be mindful of every precaution they can take to be a part of the solution.”

Warren and Washington counties can’t point to any one factor that put them in their current situation.

Washington County’s vaccination rate is significantly lower than the state’s, but Warren County’s is roughly equal.

“It just seems like people let down their guard,” Warren County spokesman Don Lehman said.

Warren County got off to a very strong start with vaccination, he said, so one theory is that with a large percentage of residents vaccinated early, a large percentage are now losing their immunity, which is known to happen with the COVID vaccines.

“We’ve been concentrating public health on boosters, because that is a theory, between waning immunity and the delta variant,” Lehman said.

County Attorney Roger Wickes said the spread in Washington County seems to be happening in informal settings.

“We’re kind of unique in that we don’t have any large venues,” he said. “There’s no one thing that’s doing it, it seems like it is spreading between families.”

Washington County also doesn’t have a hospital. Residents in the south end of the county often go to Saratoga Hospital, those in the middle to Glens Falls or Bennington, those in the north Rutland or Ticonderoga, Wickes said.

The impact has been felt in the small-town communities across Washington County.

“Our public health folks are toasted,” Wickes said. “They’re working nonstop around the clock. And we have a small public health department.”

Luckily there hasn’t been a snowstorm: Enough truck drivers are sick at the moment that Public Works might not be able to keep the roads plowed.

Neither Warren nor Washington county has opted for any protective measures such as the mask mandate recently announced in Erie County.

With so much commuting between counties, a piecemeal approach might not work for Washington county, Wickes said.

“I think that’s a consideration but we’re waiting for guidance” from the state, he said. “We’re debating the effectiveness of a mask mandate. We’re hoping for a more regional or statewide approach to it.”

Lehman said mask mandates are regularly discussed in committee meetings but there has been no move by Warren County leadership to implement one.

Glens Falls Hospital said the vast majority of its 51 COVID-positive patients are not vaccinated and Hudson Headwaters said its unvaccinated patients with COVID are much sicker than those who are fully vaccinated.

In a prepared statement, Glens Falls Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. Howard Fritz said: “Please, friends, let’s take care of each other by getting the vaccine and getting the booster as soon as you can. With this spike happening now, we are all very worried about what is to come one or two weeks after the Thanksgiving gatherings, much less what may come in January.”

The online dashboards maintained by the two counties show a significant jump in some COVID metrics in just the past three weeks:

Warren County jumped from 5,762 cumulative confirmed cases to 6,800 and Washington County from 4,669 to 6,034  from Nov. 1 to Nov. 22.

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