January 20, 2022

Cortland ER sees uptick as virus surges

Hospital can get help from larger network

Guthrie Cortland Medical Center Logo

Guthrie Cortland Medical Center is seeing an increase in emergency room patients, but is using staff from other Guthrie facilities to cope, the health organization reports.

“There’s no doubt we’re seeing an uptick in our volume,” Dr. Paula Brooks, the health system’s chief medical officer, said in late December.

During the COVID-19 shutdown, people stayed home more and didn’t get sick from the usual non-COVID diseases, Brooks said. Now that residents are out in the community again, Guthrie is seeing an increase in ER patients.

“In the adult population, what we are seeing is pent-up demand,” said Dr. Nicole Villapiano, an internal medicine specialist and pediatrician and a member of the Cortland County Health Board.

Adults delayed care for chronic conditions during the pandemic and had difficulty in controlling them at home, Villapiano said. “Now those chronic conditions are coming home to roost,” she said. “In my own (adult patient) population, I’ve had to send patients to the ER because of their own chronic conditions.”

The increase began nearly a month ago, reports the Onondaga County Medical Society. And it continues across the state as Gov. Kathy Hochul announced a plan Friday to fight a winter surge of coronavirus.

“We can get through this surge through targeted actions, partnerships with local leaders and by taking common-sense steps to keep us all safe: get vaccinated, get boosted, and wear a mask indoors,” Hochul said.

Her plan would focus on expanding access to vaccines and boosters — including a series of vaccine clinics in Cortland County over the coming weeks — supporting hospitals by mobilizing the National Guard to train as emergency medical technicians and expanding hospital capacity, distributing masks and increasing testing.

“We have every tool to keep our families and communities safe,” said acting Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett. “We must ensure we use them all.”

COVID-19 and the new Omicron variant are complicating care at the Guthrie emergency department, as well.

“There are a lot of COVID patients that come through the Guthrie ER,” Villapiano said. If patients have a cough, fever or weakness, the emergency department must treat them as if they have COVID until the results of a rapid COVID test are known, she said.

Guthrie declined to provide statistics regarding patient influx for any particular date.

“Due to the rapidly changing status of a facility on any given day, the hospital doesn’t speak about any one moment in time,” said representative Steve Osterhaus.

Still, the number of COVID-19 positive patients is “a significant and increasing proportion,” Villapiano said.

Individuals need to think of getting layers of COVID protection — vaccines, boosters, masks and tests — to not contribute to the patient load at Guthrie Cortland emergency department and hospital, she said.

“We’re right back where we were on January 2021 at the height of the pandemic,” Villapiano said. “Our emergency room, which is already stretched. Our hospital, which is already full.”

The Onondaga County Medical Society confirmed Central New York emergency departments were hard-pressed in a statement Dec. 7.

“As you know, or have heard from your patients and in the media, the local urgent care facilities and emergency rooms have been overwhelmed with visits, all having extremely long associated waiting times,” wrote President Dr. Robert Dracker. “Additionally, our local hospitals have had to resort to Diversion Status, due to unavailable services and hospital beds.”

Villapiano noted the trend in emergency room visits is up across the nation.

“This is not even a Central New York problem,” she said. “This is across the country.”

During an 11-hour period in the Cortland hospitalís emergency department from Dec. 10 into Dec. 11, nurses sweated and ran. All of the regular emergency rooms were full, as were 10 beds in the hallways. Recliners were added to accommodate additional patients.

A teenage boy was bandaged up after a lawnmower accident, a 16-year-old boy was taken to Golisano Children’s Hospital, an elderly woman suffered chest pain and asked for a stiff drink, another older woman suffered a neck injury in a fall and asked to leave as she was tired of waiting, and an elderly man screamed sporadically.

Others were more serious: a woman with a broken hip and pelvis was put in another area of the hospital so she could at least have a room, and another patient was sent directly to the operating room.

The Cortland hospital is in the equivalent of a yellow-alert phase and has plans to cope should an increasing number of emergency room patients push the hospitalís resources further, Brooks said.

“We are still in the beginning stages,” Brooks said of its emergency capacity plan, and the system is paying attention so that it can be ready to adjust.

“One thing about being in the ER, it’s very ebb and flow,” Brooks said. Guthrie can transfer staff from facilities with a lighter load to facilities that need help, she said.

The Cortland hospital announced Dec. 7 non-essential surgeries at the hospital would be postponed, except for worsening patients. The state Health Department required the move as a seven-day average of hospital capacity put Guthrie Cortland below 10% availability for open, staffed beds.

“Despite the state mandate, we are confident we have the beds available to treat patients and continue to remind the community not to delay needed care,” the hospital announced in a news release. “Our emergency room remains open and ready to care for patients.”