The number of COVID-19 patients being treated at the University of Virginia Medical Center is increasing as more area residents catch the virus, but hospital officials say they are not being overwhelmed.
Officials on Wednesday said that they have a lot of flexibility remaining at the hospital in terms of bed space and can move staff around as needed to treat those who contract the disease. The hospital is currently treating regular medical and emergency patients as well as those who have COVID, although the latter are isolated.
The number of people reported as hospitalized at UVa for COVID increased from about 40 last week to nearly 60 this week. The number of patients varies from day-to-day depending on how many are admitted or discharged.
Numbers posted on the UVa COVID dashboard showed 63 patients in the hospital being treated for the virus on Dec. 21. Other counts distributed by the hospital show 56 people were in the hospital on Wednesday with 15 on ventilators. The Thomas Jefferson Health District statistics showed about 345 under hospital care in the region.
Early in the pandemic, UVa accepted many patients from outside of the area but officials said the recent influx have been from Central Virginia.
“The majority of our patients are being treated through our outpatient program, but we have seen an uptick in our inpatients,” said Wendy Horton, the medical center’s chief executive officer. “A lot of the volume we’re seeing today is literally from within our community.”
Horton said the hospital has plenty of room to increase COVID care capacity and have cross-trained staff to work in the unit, if needed. That, she said, allows administrators to respond quickly to solve a sudden surge.
“We’re feeling well prepared. We have adequate personal protective equipment and we check on the status of each unit each day,” Horton said. “We’re working as a team and members are flexing and filling in throughout the system, where they’re needed. We have the ability to flex-in new [COVID treatment] beds, if needed.”
Horton said nearly 1,600 medical staff and caregivers who work near or with COVID patients have received their vaccinations since the shots became available last week. Another 4,300 have signed up for the vaccines.
Both currently available vaccines require two doses to provide protection.
“Our goal is to try and vaccinate all of UVa Health personnel by March, and that would include the second dose,” she said.
Dr. Costi Sifri, director of hospital epidemiology, only three staff have reported adverse reactions to the vaccine shot, which occur with 15 minutes to 30 minutes of the shot. Those included bouts of nausea and light headedness, but nothing more serious.
There have been scattered reports in Great Britain and across the U.S. of some people having serious adverse reactions, including anaphylaxis, a serious and sometimes fatal allergic reaction. The reaction is rare as Centers for Disease Control statistics show about one person in a million suffers from it after taking vaccines of any sort.
Sifri said the hospital is receiving shipments of both the Pfizer vaccine and Moderna vaccines, which have received emergency approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. He said three other vaccines are far along in development and could hit the market by March or early summer of next year.
The two approved vaccines use tiny pieces of the COVID-19-causing virus’ spike protein, called lipid nanoparticles, to stimulate the body to produce immunity. The other vaccines in development use different stimuli to produce antibodies.
“There are different types of vaccines that focus on different aspects of the virus to create antibodies and they are still under development,” Sifri said. “Our hope is to have different types of vaccines that will lend themselves to different types of people.”
Mutant strains of the pandemic virus that reportedly make it more communicable should still be limited by the vaccine, Sifri said.
“The mutation is very small, one or two amino acids among hundreds, and it may change the binding of one antibody but there are hundreds of others it doesn’t change,” he said.
Sifri noted that it researchers are still unsure if the vaccine will prevent a person from spreading the virus to others and recommends those who receive it continue to social distance and wear masks.
The relatively short time it took to develop the vaccine is due in part to the effort governments around the world put into creating it, he said. The speed is also due to lessons learned in developing other vaccines over the past two decades and the fact that there were plenty of patients to study.
“It was about 10 months from the mapping of the [virus’] genome to an effective vaccine and that’s because we were dealing with a pandemic,” Sifri said. “There will be more emerging pathogens in the future, but it’s good to know we have these vaccine platforms developed for [COVID] that we can work off of.”
While officials await more vaccines to distribute, officials said the UVa Health system will continue its community COVID testing program offered Monday evenings at Church of the Incarnation in Albemarle County and Tuesdays at Mount Zion First African Baptist Church in Charlottesville.
The health district also offers free testing. Times and dates for both are available on the Virginia Department of Health website.