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A crush of new patients is overburdening SC hospitals; Prisma doctors ask public to help by being vigilant against COVID-19.

The 'near vertical' spike in COVID-19 infections since the end of December, as charted by SCDHEC.
The 'near vertical' spike in COVID-19 infections since the end of December, as charted by SCDHEC.

Doctors at Prisma Health Thursday held a virtual press conference to discuss the Omicron-led COVID surge that’s taxing its hospital system in the Upstate and Midlands.

As of Thursday, according to Dr. Wendell James, Prisma’s Upstate incident commander, the hospital was treating 628 COVID-19 patients, approximately 78 percent of which (490) are unvaccinated. That includes 25 children, according to other doctors on the call; none of the children in critical care are vaccinated, some because they are too young to qualify for a shot.

D. James said that although the Omicron variant is causing a lower percentage of serious infections among those who contract it, the sheer number of infections has sent all graphs that chart infection numbers “near vertical” since the beginning of the year.

According to the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, nearly 100,000 South Carolinians have been infected since Christmas. Dr. James said that between Delta and Omicron infections, Prisma’s Upstate facilities have seen a 1,500 percent uptick in visits to its Greenville emergency room – many people looking for COVID tests.

Others are looking for outpatient treatment, such as monoclonal antibody therapy or antiviral drugs. But Dr. James and his colleagues, Drs. Divya Ahuja, Robin Lacroix, and Anna Kathryn Burch, emphasized that such treatments are in short supply and should be reserved for patients who are more likely to see their symptoms progress – namely older patients with preexisting comorbidities. The doctors asked that COVID patients not come to the emergency room for testing, nor unless they are very sick, because the crush of patients is meeting a shortfall of medical staff out with COVID.

Dr. James called the shortages “not an insignificant amount” of staff members and acknowledged that healthcare workers at Prisma and at every hospital in the state are overburdened and overwhelmed. Dr. Burch, however, did say “We’re here for you” and that care is given to every patient in the hospital.

But the doctors pleaded with the public to take steps to mitigate the spread of the virus. The chief defense they repeated several times during the press conference is: get vaccinated. To date, less than 53 percent of eligible South Carolinians have received a full course of vaccine, according to DHEC. Dr. Ahuja said that percentage is problematic and that it’s extending the pandemic. He added that the only way to keep the state’s hospital systems from caving under the weight of patients is for more people to be vaccinated.

Short of vaccination (for those too young to receive a shot), the doctors said that “the basics” still prove highly effective: wash your hands frequently, stay away from groups, and wear a mask.

Dr. Ahuja acknowledged “a certain inevitability” that most of us – as much as 80 percent of South Carolinians – could be infected from the hugely contagious Omicron variant, and that the number of infections could peak around February. But, he said, “now is not the time to lose our patience. We don’t all have to be infected at the same time,” and urged South Carolinians to stay vigilant and help slow the rate of the spread, as to help alleviate mounting pressure on the state’s hospital system.

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.