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Local hospitals prepare for expected Omicron-fueled COVID case surge

Virus Outbreak Germany
Martin Meissner/AP
An intubated COVID-19 patient gets treatment at the intensive care unit at the Westerstede Clinical Center, a military-civilian hospital in Westerstede, northwest Germany, Friday, Dec. 17, 2021. As hospitals across Europe brace themselves for a surge in coronavirus cases over the holiday season because of the new omicron variant, Westerstede Clinical Center is cautiously hopeful it can weather the storm. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

With local medical facilities preparing for an influx of COVID patients, the Healthcare Association of Hawaii says it's in good shape in terms of oxygen supply, personal protective equipment and other supplies. But the association does expect to need additional health care workers.

The state Department of Health reported on Wednesday 961 new COVID-19 cases statewide with a positivity rate of 7.5%. On Oʻahu, there were 866 cases with a 9.6% positivity rate.

The association, which represents hospitals and long-term facilities across the state, has been tracking those numbers closely.

President and CEO Hilton Raethel said local hospitals are already full of non-COVID patients, so an influx of COVID hospitalizations would further stress the system.

"They have been full for ... essentially since July. We're running an elevated census compared to historical levels. We had the COVID surge, and then when the COVID surge abated, our hospitals continued to be full with non-COVID patients," he said.

Raethel said about 2,239 of roughly 2,600 hospital beds are already occupied. As of Tuesday, 60 of those beds were coronavirus patients.

Nevertheless, Raethel said right now health care facilities are in good shape regarding oxygen, PPE and other supplies. Straub Medical Center has already requested a triage tent, or acute care module, to help with overflow from the emergency room.

"We do anticipate needing to bring in additional staff from the mainland to, one, help deal with the expected rise in hospitalizations, and also to backfill those health care workers who have been potentially exposed or have symptoms from the virus," Raethel said.

Nearly 800 additional hospital staff were flown into the state from the mainland during the last spike in cases. Federal Emergency Management Agency funding for the workers ended in November, Raethel said, and most left the state.

The Omicron variant is much more contagious than the Delta variant, he said. But Raethel said the good news is that the rate of hospitalization and deaths from Omicron appears to be lower.

"The vaccines and especially the boosters do protect at a very high level against serious illness and death," he said.

One of the challenges is that previous exposure to variants like Delta or Alpha does not appear to provide any protection against Omicron, he said.

As for boosters shots, Raethel said, "We are not doing as well as many other states. About 23% of our fully vaccinated adults have boosters right now. We would like that number to be much higher."

As of Wednesday, 78.6% of the state population aged 5 and over are fully vaccinated. On Oʻahu that number is 82%. The state reports 326,575 third doses have been administered.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Dec. 22, 2021. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at
Sophia McCullough is a digital news producer. Contact her at
The Associated Press is one of the largest and most trusted sources of independent newsgathering, supplying a steady stream of news to its members, international subscribers and commercial customers. Founded in 1846, AP is neither privately owned nor government-funded; instead, it's a not-for-profit news cooperative owned by its American newspaper and broadcast members.
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