Oklahoma City hospitals again overrun by COVID-19, administrators say

Jan. 18—Desperate and pleading for help, administrators of the four main health systems in the Oklahoma City metro urged Oklahomans Tuesday to practice mitigation efforts against COVID-19 as their hospitals are "at a breaking point."

With zero available ICU and in-patient beds between INTEGRIS Health, Mercy Hospital OKC, OU Health and SSM St. Anthony, the health systems have had to resort to extreme measures when it comes to taking care of patients, administrators said in a news conference Tuesday.

"All of our health systems across the Oklahoma City metro had a total of 117 patients in our emergency departments waiting for an open bed," said Dr. Julie Watson, chief medical officer of INTEGRIS Health. " ...This time it feels and sometimes even looks like a warzone. Cases have risen so rapidly we have to care for patients in hallways and sometimes closets."

As of Tuesday, there are 1,388 COVID hospitalizations statewide, 256 of them in the ICU and 48 in pediatric beds. The same day, the state health department reported 3,853 new COVID cases and a seven-day rolling new case average of 10,476.

On top of the influx of cases they are seeing, hospitals are short staffed, meaning the quality of care is not at the level administrators want, Watson said.

Between the four health systems, there are an estimated 1,000 employees either quarantining or unable to come to work because they cannot find child care, further straining the systems.

"We can't cancel flights and we can't go remote. Our doors are open 24 hours a day and there is no rest for the weary," Watson said while on the verge of tears. "That's why I'd like to take a moment to talk to our health care workers right now. Please know that we see you and we are doing everything within our power to help you survive this nightmarish rollercoaster. You've been asked to be heroes for too long — you're human beings who have shown superhuman strength, and we know you're battered and scarred."

In addition to their internal struggles, administrators said the health systems have felt a disconnect between them and the state government, as the two entities often clash when it comes to messaging.

The health systems urge people to follow COVID mitigation efforts and listen to public health recommendations, from mandating masks to getting vaccinated. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and the state legislature last year passed bills banning mask and vaccine mandates in public schools, and urging "personal responsibility."

"I would simply say there are now many many studies that have demonstrated clearly that mask policies in schools or in communities reduce transmission rates for COVID-19," said Dr. Dale Bratzler, chief COVID officer at OU Health. "That's actually not controversial anymore. It's quite clear."

Aside from the state's legislation, the mixed messaging Oklahomans are receiving from those in power isn't helping curb the spread of the virus, doctors said.

"Omicron has been a test for us, a true test in what we've learned from the past, and I regret to say that we're not really doing very well in that test," said Dr. Chad Smith, chief medical officer at Mercy Hospital OKC. "And it's because of all the inconsistencies in how we message about what we know works."

At a separate press conference Tuesday afternoon, Stitt made multiple claims that directly contradicted what hospital administrators said at their earlier press conference.

Stitt claimed omicron does not seem to be "as dangerous" as far as having to go to the hospital is concerned, but each hospital administrator earlier that day was clear that they have no ICU beds available due to COVID hospitalizations.

"Our hospital numbers are not as high as they were back in January (2021)," Stitt said. "I just got off a phone call with an update from our health department, and 40 to 45% of our hospitalizations with COVID are there with COVID, not because of COVID."

While those numbers may be true for those who are vaccinated, it is less true for those who are not vaccinated, according to hospital administrators, who said they are seeing significant cases of COVID-19 in people who have not taken the vaccine.

Administrators also said they are struggling to provide adequate care because of the number of COVID cases in their facilities.

"Our emergency departments are overflowing," Watson said. "Our healthcare professionals are exhausted. We've been working nearly nonstop for over two years now. Omicron cases are rising faster than previous variants and we are struggling to keep up."

Dr. Cameron Mantor, chief medical officer for OU Health, said Tuesday that over the past two weeks, OU Children's Hospital has seen 13% of children who come in for an operation test positive for COVID-19 prior to their procedure. That number is up from the 1% of kids testing positive just two months ago, he said.

"This is a huge increase in the number of kids," Mantor said. "So that tells me that they are, they're are getting it at school, they're getting it at home. And although school districts aren't allowed to mandate any type of thing, I will tell you that every time I talk about, 'what can we do to protect our kids,' there's nothing wrong with a parent asking their child to wear a mask when they go to school. And I think we need to continue to do that."

Due to rising COVID cases among students and staff, Norman Public Schools announced Monday it will be moving six of its campuses either fully or partially remote.

Still, the best way for people to protect themselves from COVID-19 is to get vaccinated and get the booster shot, the doctors agreed.

"I can tell you right now, last week, we had no ICU patients who were COVID positive that were vaccinated, none that were fully vaccinated," Watson said. "So vaccines do work, and they prevent serious illness. And if you are vaccinated but not boosted, please get boosted. It is a game-changer for you and for preventing serious illness."

Reese Gorman covers politics and COVID-19 for The Transcript; reach him at rgorman@normantranscript.com or @reeseg_3.