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North Bay hospitals again face delaying elective procedures as coronavirus cases surge

North Bay hospital leaders report filling beds, uncertain elective surgery schedules and worry that winter is around the corner.

Most say things are getting worse, not better, because of those who refuse to take the vaccine.

“The failure of communities to vaccinate will impair health care organizations’ ability to care for non-COVID-related conditions given the current volume of COVID patients taking up non-COVID beds,” said Dr. Chad Krilich, chief medical officer, Providence, Sonoma County.

Fairfield-based NorthBay Healthcare on Aug. 11 said it will suspend elective surgeries for at least two weeks starting Aug. 16 at its two Solano County hospitals: NorthBay Medical Center in Fairfield and NorthBay VacaValley Hospital in Vacaville.

Both hospitals, with a total of 204 beds, have been at capacity — meaning all beds, not only ICU beds — for more than a week. That includes about 50 COVID-19-positive patients, according to Steve Huddleston, vice president, public affairs at NorthBay Healthcare. At press time, about one-third of those patients were in critical condition in the ICU at NorthBay Medical Center.

“This impacts patient care and creates rescheduling challenges, so we are monitoring surge metrics hourly in hopes of avoiding extending this any longer than necessary,” noted Dr. Seth Kaufman, chief medical officer. “Of course, urgent and emergency cases, as well as outpatient procedures, will continue.”

More than 100 hospitals across the country have reported halting elective procedures in response to an increase in hospitalized COVID-19 patients — and that was as of June 1, according to Becker’s Hospital Review.

MarinHealth Medical Center, a 327-bed hospital, is operating at full capacity “and then some,” but elective procedures currently remain on schedule, said Dr. Karin Shavelson, chief medical officer.

“We’re seeing a lot of people who put off their important health care and are having consequences: cancers, heart attacks, things like that,” Shavelson said. “Sure, you can delay a knee replacement for six months, perhaps. But for some of these things, we really don't want our patients to have to delay any longer.”

And summer can be an ideal time to undergo elective procedures, she noted, especially as cold weather is on the horizon.

“I think we're all a little bit worried about what winter will look like with COVID and the usual respiratory viruses coming together,” Shavelson said, “so we would like to offer our patients the opportunity to catch up on those things that they need to have done.”

A number of North Bay area health care leaders, including Shavelson, expressed frustration that the latest strain on hospital systems could largely have been avoided if there weren’t people refusing vaccination.

So far this month, Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and Petaluma Valley Hospital combined are averaging 30 COVID-19 patients, up from eight in June, Krilich said. The two hospitals have a total of 418 beds. “As during the previous peaks of the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to evaluate daily non-urgent procedures.”

Over at the 208-bed Providence Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa, surgical cases are being reviewed every day, said Dr. Amy Herold, chief medical officer.

“They are evaluated for necessity and occasionally postponed,” Herold said. “We are trying to ensure everyone gets the surgical care they need in a timely manner, but as the situation changes day by day, we are required to be flexible in what we have the capacity to take on.”

Queen of the Valley is operating at capacity, and Santa Rosa Memorial and Petaluma Valley are operating at greater than 90% capacity as of press time, the physicians said, respectively.

Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital is seeing a considerable increase in hospitalizations and has postponed some elective procedures where it is safe to do so, said CEO Dan Peterson. The hospital has 84 beds.

“We are monitoring the situation carefully and will continue to provide access to care while managing staff, resources and capacity,” Peterson said. “Vaccination is the best step we can take to put this pandemic behind us.”

Tarek Salaway, senior vice president and area manager of Kaiser Permanente’s Marin-Sonoma service area, said COVID-19 cases have increased 3-fold over the past four weeks at the health care system’s Northern California facilities.

“We are closely monitoring an increase in hospitalizations and positive test rates for COVID-19 in Kaiser Permanente Northern California, including our (173-bed) Santa Rosa Medical Center,” Salaway said. “We have rescheduled a small number of non-urgent procedures and have already reached out to those members.” He noted the health care system is trying to avoid postponing further procedures.

Sonoma Valley Hospital, which has 51 beds, has experienced a slight uptick in positive COVID-19 cases, but to date has been able to manage the increase and continue with elective procedures, said Celia Kruse de la Rosa, director of community outreach and marketing.

Similarly, there are no hospital capacity challenges at this time at Adventist Health St. Helena, according to Quality Director Mary Bergerson. However, the 151-bed hospital went from having no COVID-19 patients over the last several weeks, to now caring for between four and six COVID-19 patients, she said.

That hospitals are again in this position upsets Shavelson, especially for children who can’t yet get the vaccination.

“There's nothing like seeing a pediatric patient on a ventilator. It will break your heart every single time and I've seen it more times than I can count,” said Shavelson, who also is a pediatrician. “I don't want to see it because of COVID. We don't need to see it because of COVID. We just need to all be vaccinated.”

Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. She previously worked for a Gannett daily newspaper in New Jersey and NJBIZ, the state’s business journal. Cheryl has freelanced for business journals in Sacramento, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

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