By Scott Cormier, Vice President of Emergency Management, Environment of Care and Safety, Medxcel
The COVID-19 Delta variant has dominated the news and social media for several weeks now. While it is not uncommon for a virus to have variants – a slight change or mutation from the original virus – mutations are normally not a concern. Sometimes, though, “variants of concern” causes a change in a virus’s infectivity or vaccine efficacy. The Delta variant is one of these variants of concern. Further, there are three more we are watching closely: Alpha, Beta and Gamma. There are also four variants of interest, which means they have genetic changes that may affect transmission or treatment. Those are Eta, Iota, Kappa and Lambda.
The Delta variant is now the dominant strain in the United States. As of this writing, it makes up an estimated 83% of cases in the United States. According to the CDC, infections from the Delta strain contributed to a 10% rise in daily COVID-19 cases to around 12,600 cases late last month. That is still a 95% drop from peak levels in the US in January, but hospital admissions are increasing in over 25 states. In fact, the CDC recently reported the 7-day average of new daily cases jumped more than 69%, and hospitalizations increased more than 35%. However, where vaccination rates are high, new cases and hospitalizations are declining. Where vaccination rates are low, new cases and hospitalizations are rising.
This should be a grave concern to all healthcare facilities professionals, whether located in states with high vaccination rates or not. Overall, the healthcare industry was slow to respond to COVID-19. This led to shortages in PPE and beds, a slow transition to best practices in treating and operating on COVID patients, and the overall lengthy process of implementing barriers, masks, social distancing and the appropriate training for all staff.
Learning from the Past
When the avian flu began to spread in 2005, emergency management and healthcare officials thought this was going to be the next pandemic. We made robust pandemic plans and amassed antiviral medication. Then the avian flu waned and the preparedness plans fell away. When H1N1 surged in 2009, those same emergency management and healthcare personnel remembered some of what they had prepared for in 2005, but as the virus faded and no longer posed a large-scale threat, officials shelved their pandemic preparedness plans.
We didn’t consider the lessons we had learned.
As COVID-19 cases began to wane with a pick-up in vaccinations earlier this year, the future looked bright. This was akin to what we had seen in 2005 and 2009 where cases continued to decline until they were minimal, as were the fear and panic associated with them. We all hoped the same would be true for COVID.
Facilities relied on muscle memory from past epidemics. Despite robust emergency management plans (that may have been 15 years old), facilities do what they know and work with what they have. In 2020, this meant shutting down elective procedures and focusing on COVID. As COVID cases declined, non-COVID procedures started to open back up. It felt like a return to normal, when the virus would fade and we could go back to what life was like beforehand, just like in 2005 and 2009.
This is not the case.
With four variants of concern and another four to keep an eye on, COVID will not be leaving us any time soon. Numerous professionals have predicted COVID-19 will be endemic – it will be with us forever like influenza, something we have to live with at all times. It’s time for facilities managers to stop thinking “When will this be over?” and start thinking “How will we incorporate proven COVID protocols into our operations moving forward?” This won’t be a temporary measure.
Preparing for the Future
COVID-19 is not the only emergency we have to be prepared for. Along with other endemic viruses, hospitals must be prepared for any disaster that strikes, from wildfires to snowstorms to floods and more. If facilities rely on muscle memory and shut down elective procedures to combat COVID surges, they will be unprepared for other disasters that may strike. Having the ability to treat COVID patients alongside traditional and other emergency operations is critical.
We can hope that, as with most variants, the COVID variants don’t survive. We can hope that more Americans get vaccinated to decrease their viral loads and prevent severe cases. But hope doesn’t prepare us for real emergencies. As long as variants propagate, and as long as people remain unvaccinated, COVID-19 will be a real and present health threat.
About the Author
Scott Cormier is the Vice President of Emergency Management, Environment of Care (EOC) and Safety at Medxcel, specializing in facilities management, safety, environment of care, and emergency management and provides healthcare service support products and drives in-house capabilities, saving and efficiencies for healthcare organizations that, in turn, improve the overall healing environment for patients and staff. Cormier leads the development and implementation of emergency management, general safety and accident-prevention programs for the national network of hospitals that Medxcel serves.