Siskiyou County doctors warn of COVID-19 hospital surge as virus cases increase

Mike Meyer
Mt. Shasta Area Newspapers
Mercy Medical Center Mt. Shasta's new emergency department was officially opened on Friday, Sept. 18 with a blessing ceremony. The project, which has been in progress for two years, added 2,900 square feet of space to the old department, which was built in the late 1970s.

Car crash and heart attack victims, husbands who fall off the roof and moms who slice into an artery while chopping vegetables — they have one thing in common: They all go to the emergency room.

But the doctors who treat these and hundreds of other kinds of patients in Siskiyou County ERs are in a sweat because a wave of new COVID-19 patients is expected at Mercy Medical Center Mt. Shasta and Fairchild Medical Center's hospital beds in coming days. As of last week, coronavirus patients were using about a quarter of the beds at Siskiyou County's only two hospitals.

Dr. Aaron Stutz

"We're seeing more new cases than we ever saw last year," said Dr. Aaron Stutz, an emergency medicine specialist and the county's public health officer. "Over the past couple of weeks we've seen 30 and 40 new (delta variant) cases a day, as compared to new cases in the teens and 20s during the 2020 surge. Last week we had a day with 57 new cases."

As of Monday, 271 people in the county had active, positive COVID-19 tests. Not all of them show symptoms, Stutz said, but they're all "on active seven-day isolation because we have to assume they can infect other people."

Covid variant causes new concerns

The increase reflects a “higher rate of spread” by the virus, according to Dr. Robert Evans, who is the medical director of the emergency department at Mercy Mt. Shasta.

“The variant is more contagious (than last year's virus); we see more people infected," he said. Evans added that most new cases are occurring in people who have not received the COVID vaccine.

“We're seeing a tremendously higher rate,” Evans said.

Brian Shirley, Respiratory Therapist at Mercy Mt. Shasta operates a ventilator – a piece of equipment that is important for treating those most seriously affected by coronavirus, in late March of 2020.

Data from public health websites support his observation; the unvaccinated account for about 95% of COVID-19 patients in the United States.

Another difference between the illness people suffer with the variant and the illness before vaccinations were available last year is the intensity.

"A snapshot of what I've been seeing is young and healthy, unvaccinated patients who do poorly," said Evans, who is also an ER doctor at Mercy. "They get sicker. This is as opposed to older but vaccinated patients, with medical problems, who sail through it. For them it is a minor illness, and they had full recoveries."

He described the effects he's seen in critically ill COVID patients. They develop "a more viral pneumonia in the lungs,” where the virus “takes a strong foothold” causing “a tremendous amount of fluid build-up” so that patients struggle to breathe, he said.

"It's devastating,” Evans said. “You see people who probably wouldn't have this if they had the vaccine. But you get a sense of relief with the vaccinated. You can tell them they're gonna do well, and they do."

Fairchild Medical Center's COVID-19 vaccine coordinator Ann-Marie Moser, RN, gives orothopedic surgeon Dr. Dan Bullock the very first COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine to be administered at FMC.

Siskiyou County hospital beds filling up with COVID patients

The doctors are concerned that within days, Siskiyou County hospitals could be unable to deal with all patients needing to be admitted. Both doctors said independently they expect a surge of COVID-19 hospitalizations in coming days. They say there may not be enough hospital beds or staff in Siskiyou County to deal with the COVID and non-COVID patients. 

"As (Thursday), we had 14 COVID patients hospitalized in the county, four of them in the ICU," said Stutz. "That's a lot for this county. There has to be room for patients with pneumonia, heart attacks and other illnesses and injuries.

The county has 50 beds total, eight of them in the ICU, Stutz noted.

“When COVID takes a third to half of the beds, it's a big deal. Because of the backlog of COVID patients, we could have trouble seeing those people with (other) complaints," Stutz explained. "When we see new cases, we know a certain percentage will end up in the hospital. But there's a two-week lag between positive tests and hospitalization. Because of the increases (in positive tests) the last two to three weeks, we're now expecting a surge.”

In addition to the delta variant's sharper attack on and greater spread among people, Mercy's Evans said the increase may also be attributed to people lowering their guard.

“We've all noticed that people in the community are taking fewer safety precautions. Less social distancing and wearing of masks."

He emphasized the importance of safety precautions practiced last year. “Even if people who test positive infect only one other person, the COVID numbers won't lower. But if people mask up, it'll go down," Evans said.