Omicron overload forcing local health care officials to embrace new ways to ease strain

·6 min read

Jan. 22—Local health care officials and workers are feeling the strain from COVID-19 like never before as the omicron variant continues to sicken hundreds across the region each day.

Earlier this week, the Jasper County Health Department was the first in the region to adopt an electronic documentation system to help it accurately track contact tracing data.

Before the 2021 holiday season, health department officials were primarily making phone calls to reach those who had tested positive for the virus and passing on details about in-house quarantine times.

But as regional coronavirus cases spike this month — the Jasper County department has nearly 17,500 total cases and 1,000 active cases — officials have switched to other means of communication as the backlog of people needing to be contacted balloons.

"It has been a logistical nightmare," Tony Moehr, Jasper County Health Department director, said Friday. "As long as the caseload is not super high, we can manage that. Even if we're up to 60 or 70 cases a day, we can still keep track of what's what" through individual phone calls.

But cases in Jasper County are far from those earlier totals, he said.

"As of today (Friday), our seven-day average cases per day is at 143 cases," Moehr said — the previous seven-day average was 120 cases per day. "On our worst day of the (2021) summer we got up to 51 cases a day. Back in January of last year, it was around 75 cases a day. We're double that right now."

What's causing the communication backlog mainly has to do with the huge influx of cases in the Joplin region, he said.

"We try to call individuals multiples times a day, at different times of the day ... and quite frankly, if you're receiving 150 (new) cases a day and trying to contact each one multiple times, you start getting a pile-up of cases of people that we have not been able to contact or haven't responded to our previous contacts."

Another factor has to do with the recent decision by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to scale down the isolation period to five days. According to Moehr, by the time the department receives a report concerning a sick individual after two days, a portion of that individual's isolation period potentially has been eroded.

The new electronic system "is kind of one of those 'no other choice' type of things," he said. It's "better than what we were able to do before."

The system works this way: Individuals who test positive will receive a text message with a secure link including instructions for them to fill out an electronic questionnaire form. It should be completed for each household member who tested positive for the virus, Moehr said. Upon receipt of the information, Jasper County Health Department officials will fire off a set of instructions, including the CDC's quarantine recommendations, to the individuals. This not only speeds up the communication process, but it negates the use of having to make multiple phone calls or play phone tag.

The system was created by Greene County health officials and is now being used by several Missouri counties, including Webster County. Jasper County is the first in the Joplin region to adopt the system.

"We're hoping that during times when we are super swamped with cases like we are right now," Moehr said, "that we can fall back on this (automated system) as much as possible and still get important information out to people so they can get the information they require."

To illustrate how infectious the omicron strain is, look no further than COVID-19 numbers released Thursday by McDonald County Health Department officials. Of the 5,096 total COVID-19 cases recorded there, 2,076 were listed in 2020 and 2,261 cases were recorded in 2021. Halfway through the first month of 2022, 759 cases have already been recorded. Just to the north, Newton County health officials have recorded 351 cases in just the last three days, with 176 recorded Tuesday alone.

Because omicron is nearly as transmissible as the measles, both Joplin-based hospitals are feeling the strain not only from the influx of area patients but also sick hospital staff members forced to quarantine at home after being exposed outside the hospital.

To combat the sudden labor shortage, Mercy officials earlier this week implemented a volunteer program where hospital employees — working in traditional nonpatient care jobs such as IT or clerical work — can sign up to help out ease the strain among the hospital's entire staff.

The volunteers aren't asked to provide "direct patient-care" tasks, a Mercy release stated. They will be asked to undertake nonmedical tasks— stocking, for example, or refreshing supplies — that are still "crucial to maintaining (Mercy's) high standards and exceptional care."

Joe Craigmile, manager of client services for Mercy Joplin, said Friday that he's one of the Mercy employees who have volunteered to lend a hand when needed. Normally, he works in the hospital's marketing department, but in this new volunteer capacity, he might wind up helping out by working jobs in the hospital's cafeteria.

"For nearly two years now, I have watched in awe as front-line and essential co-workers have charged head-on battling COVID," Craigmile said in a release. "How could I not jump at the chance to give these workers some much-needed support? It's not just my obligation, it's a very small way for me to say 'thank you' for all you have done for our community.

"We've had a lot of volunteers who have stepped up," he added. "Mercy really is a team-oriented place, and this is just another example of that."

It's the first time Mercy has implemented this type of volunteer program since COVID-19 first took hold in America in early 2020, Craigmile said.

"It's just that the numbers are so high, with so many people needing quarantined ... (and) we have to carry on with the day-to-day work at the hospital," he said Friday. "So this will help us continue" providing care.

Paula Baker, Freeman Health System's president and chief executive officer, said Friday the hospital has seen coronavirus numbers climb since late November, after Thanksgiving celebrations.

"We have also had a high volume of non-COVID patients with other illnesses and injuries which require hospitalization," Baker said in a statement. "In spite of workforce challenges and other issues, Freeman Health System has leaned on creative solutions to help us ensure safe care for those we serve. We have an amazing team of clinicians and have taken the phrase 'all hands on deck' to a new level during this surge."