Dr. Charles Fenzi, who heads the S.B. Neighborhood Clinics, said 20 percent of his staff were either ill themselves with COVID or caring for sick family members. At Cottage Health, amid a 400 percent increase in COVID patients, more than 100 of the clinical staff are out for the same reasons. | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

In the past month, Cottage Hospital has experienced a 400 percent spike in the number of hospitalized COVID patients, while at the same time its own workers have increasingly called in sick. 

“We are feeling the impacts,” stated Cottage administrator Bob Behbehanian. In the past two weeks, Behbehanian stated, more than 100 nurses and other clinical staff have called in sick or reported they had family members infected with COVID they needed to tend to. “All staff are working extremely hard during this surge to cover these shifts and assure patient needs are met.” 

At the same time, he revealed that the number of COVID patients hospitalized has jumped from 11 on December 29 to 57 as of January 19. In between, he noted, the increase has been both sustained and steady. 

Dr. Charles Fenzi, CEO of the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics, reported that since the holidays ended, 33 staff members have not been able to show up for their shifts, either because they were infected or someone in their family had been. In some cases, “that’s 20 percent of our staff!” he exclaimed. “This has been very disruptive, as we were short-staffed to begin with.” It got so bad, Fenzi said, “we had to close one of our smaller clinics last week, as two-thirds of the staff was sick with COVID-19.” Fenzi stressed that none of these workers got infected from seeing a patient. 

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The reality is that healthcare workers don’t live in a bubble and are prone to infection no matter how many precautions they take. The impact of this reality is obscured by the blizzard of mind-numbing statistics and inconsistent advisories released by public health agencies in the onslaught of the Omicron-fueled surge. In this information overload, it’s easy to miss the big picture. At a recent County Supervisors meeting, for example, 4th District Supervisor Bob Nelson expressed doubt that area hospitals were experiencing an overall increase in their numbers of patients. COVID patients, yes, he said, but total numbers, no. 

According to recent statistics released by the county’s Department of Public Health, 81.9 percent of the county’s 595 hospital beds are currently in use. Of those, 150 are now holding COVID patients. When it comes to intensive-care unit (ICU) beds, the pinch is more acute. Of the 70 staffed ICU beds, 67 are currently occupied. That’s 95 percent. Anything above 65 percent is deemed to be in the “Red Zone” by county health officials. Of those, 14 are for COVID patients. 

The brighter news is that the number of patients sick enough to require ventilation has remained fairly low. Of the county’s total inventory of 161 ventilators, only 12.4 percent are currently in use.  Of the 20 ventilators currently deployed, 10 are being used to keep COVID patients alive. 

For the latest COVID-19 statistics, see Public Health’s Santa Barbara County Community Data Dashboard here.

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