With the omicron variant spreading across Pennsylvania and hospitalizations on the rise, Penn Highlands Healthcare Chief Medical Officer Dr. Russell Cameron is reminding people to get the COVID-19 vaccination and booster shot to protect themselves and their communities.

Cameron said during a news conference Wednesday the health system is treating roughly the same number of COVID-19 patients in its hospitals as it did during its previous pandemic peak in December 2020.

“The holiday surge started earlier than we expected, and that is largely due to the omicron variant,”said Cameron

The COVID-19 cases are straining the hospital, resulting in longer wait times in the emergency room and acute care centers, and forcing the system to reduce hours at some acute care centers and postpone some elective surgeries.

More than 41% of the 92 patients hospitalized throughout Penn Highlands Healthcare are being treated at Mon Valley, where there are 38 COVID-19 patients. Cameron said 17 COVID patients died at health system hospitals this week.

Cameron said the “overwhelming majority” of the hospitalized patients who are in the ICU, or died, are not vaccinated.

The COVID-19 surge also is having an impact on the health care staff. Penn Highlands Healthcare COO Mark Norman said, as of Wednesday, 199 of the system’s 6,100 employees had either tested positive for COVID-19 or were waiting for test results.

“Our staff is stretched,” said Norman, who commended them for doing an excellent job amid the pandemic.

Norman said the health system isn’t mandating COVID-19 vaccinations for its employees while the issue is being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court, but it is encouraging the staff to get vaccinated.

About 80% of the health system’s staff has been fully vaccinated.

Meanwhile, Cameron noted, as COVID-19 hospitalizations surge across the nation, Pennsylvania is among the nine states reporting the highest number of pediatric coronavirus cases.

“We are seeing a higher number of pediatric cases,” Cameron said.

He also said cases of influenza are expected to rise, and the health system has seen patients who have had both the flu and COVID-19.

And Cameron encouraged people to donate blood, since the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a critical shortage of blood throughout the country and in the region.

Norman, too, encouraged people to get vaccinated, saying the health system’s priority is keeping the community safe.

“We are seeing people die every day,” said Norman. “We encourage everyone to get vaccinated and get boosted.”

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