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Upper Chesapeake Health officials update Harford County Council on ‘daunting’ COVID-19 situation

Representatives from University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health delivered an update to the Harford County Council Tuesday night on the state of the hospital system as it continues to deal with the COVID-19 surge.

Bryan Kelly, chair of the hospital system’s board of directors, referenced an article from The Baltimore Sun that implied that there is no “cavalry” of additional support personnel that many hospitals had hoped for, in describing the overburdened hospital system.

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“I believe the University of Maryland Medical System is that ‘cavalry’ working tirelessly to work through these challenges and rethink how we deliver care in order to care for as many people as possible,” Kelly said in his opening remarks.

As of Tuesday, UM Upper Chesapeake Medical Center and Harford Memorial Hospital had 141 COVID-19 patients admitted and 17 others waiting for a bed to open up, Colin Ward, senior vice president and chief operating officer of the hospital system, said during the presentation. That number has nearly doubled since a recorded 73 between the two hospitals as of Dec. 21.

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“The latest wave of COVID has risen quickly and more significantly than anyone could have imagined,” Ward said. “If you come to a hospital during this wave of COVID, you can expect long wait times and our treatment areas may look different. We’re maximizing all available spaces to provide care as we respond to the changing needs of the pandemic.”

Ward confirmed that some patients have been transferred from Harford County. He said patients have the option to be transferred to one of the state’s designated alternate care sites, the University of Maryland Laurel Center or the Adventist HealthCare Takoma Park Hospital, to reduce wait times.

Ward also discussed the burden placed on the hospitals due to a staffing shortage, caused largely by staff members retiring or reducing their hours, or having to quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19.

“Today, we face a perfect storm of unprecedented volume driven almost entirely by unvaccinated COVID patients with staffing shortages not seen in decades,” Ward said. “And that is what makes this current wave so daunting.”

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Pulmonologist Jason Birnbaum, who heads UMUCH’s critical care program, noted that the most critical patients they’re seeing are “generally healthy unvaccinated individuals.”

“This is a disease that’s affecting the unvaccinated,” Birnbaum said. “It’s taking a toll on my critical care colleagues who are either distraught from the emotional toll that it’s taken on them from getting attached to their patients, or even worse, becoming devoid of emotion.”

At one point, Councilman Tony Giangiordano asked the panel: “Have we got anybody dying in the last couple of weeks with this?”

“Every day,” Birnbaum replied.

The Harford County Health Department currently tracks COVID-19 related data within the county. As of Wednesday, there were 10 new recorded COVID-19 deaths, bringing the overall total to 446.

Council President Patrick Vincenti said he was impressed by the hospital’s efforts to adjust to the surge. Vincenti participated in a virtual meeting on Jan. 3 with hospital staff and other local leaders.

“After our concerns about wait times for [emergency medical services], we could see where you were making the difference … [and] were trying to turn things over as quick as possible,” Vincenti said. “We had no idea it was as involved as it is.”

Councilman Andre Johnson asked the panel to clarify why people should get vaccinated if they could still potentially contract the virus.

“The real purpose of the vaccine is to prevent serious, critically life-threatening illness,” Birnbaum said. “And it’s working.”

The panel also fielded questions from council members regarding pediatric COVID cases. Birnbaum said the hospital system had not seen a significant rise in the number of pediatric patients with COVID-19.

As of Wednesday, Patterson Mill Middle School has the seventh highest COVID-19 outbreak in the state and is one of five Harford County public schools reporting outbreaks, according to the state health department.

Before the presentation, Vincenti announced that the council is working to set up another testing center at the Epicenter, an Edgewood nonprofit.

Vincenti also said the County Council had begun identifying members for a search committee to hire a new health officer. Marcy Austin has served as interim health officer since Dr. David Bishai was removed from the position in October.

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