Marin hospitals under duress from host of viruses

Marin is getting hit by a trifecta of respiratory viruses, stressing the capacities of the county’s hospitals to a level not seen since the height of the COVID-19 surges.

“The emergency departments in our hospitals have essentially been functioning at maximum capacity for the past week or so,” said Dr. Matt Willis, Marin County’s public health officer.

Willis said there has been a much higher number of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus cases than normal for this time of year. The number of COVID-19 cases has also begun to rise.

A flood of new patients is just part of the problem.

“There are staffing shortages in almost all branches of the health care system, including some of our skilled nursing facilities,” Willis said. “Right now we’re challenged to even maintain normal staffing levels, much less being able to increase staffing to match the demand.”

Marin has three main hospitals: MarinHealth Medical Center in Greenbrae; Novato Community Hospital, which is operated by Sutter Health; and Kaiser Permanente San Rafael Medical Center. Both Novato Community and Kaiser have had to transfer patients to centers in their networks that are outside Marin.

Also, an increase in illness among the staff of local skilled nursing centers has delayed the return of elderly patients to these sites following hospital treatment, causing further backup at hospitals.

Another concern is a potential shortage of Tamiflu, the drug that treats flu infections. County health officials have received reports that supplies of the drug are running low in other parts of the state. It might need to be used sparingly to ensure a supply for those at highest risk. National stockpiles maintained by the federal government might need to be tapped if demand continues to rise.

“My hope is that when people understand that their health system is under stress that they’ll do their part,” Willis said.

Willis is urging residents to avoid going to emergency rooms if their medical condition can be handled by visiting an outpatient clinic or seeking advice over the telephone. He also urges anyone who hasn’t been vaccinated for the flu, or needs a COVID-19 vaccination or booster, to act now.

“Influenza vaccination rates are way too low right now relative to the risk,” Willis said.

Only about half of Marin residents who are eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine booster have received one. Local data show that receiving the updated booster cuts the risk of being hospitalized in half. No one in Marin who has received the updated booster has died from COVID-19.

“Our community should know that our local health care system is being stressed by preventable infections,” said Dr. Melanie Thompson, chief medical officer for Marin Community Clinics. “We hope this will lead people to make safe choices as we come into the heart of the holidays.”

Of the three respiratory viruses threatening Marin, flu is the biggest threat. On Friday, there were 12 patients hospitalized in Marin because of COVID-19 while there were 15 hospitalized because of flu. Three people were in the hospital because of respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV.

While the number of pediatric RSV cases appears to be coming down, detection of all three viruses in local wastewater is continuing to rise, portending more infections. The amount of COVID-19 virus in Marin wastewater increased 16% over the previous week.

On Thursday, there were 105 new COVID-19 cases reported in Marin, the most in a single day since July.

On Friday, San Anselmo announced it was canceling a “breakfast with Santa” event scheduled for Saturday because of the tripledemic. Willis said that while taking such steps is reasonable, he isn’t contemplating reimposing any new mask mandates or other preventive measures.

“At this point 2-½ years into the pandemic, our public understands the benefit of masking for preventing infection,” he said. “I think we do better when we can function in an environment of choice.”

Nevertheless, Willis recommends that people take care before gathering with friends and family over the coming holidays. He said that in addition to being fully vaccinated for flu and COVID-19, it is a good idea for anyone experiencing cold symptoms to isolate and for everyone attending a gathering to test for COVID-19 the day of the event.

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