As COVID-19 patients enter Marian Regional Medical Center's emergency room, lead respiratory care practitioner Lori Lewis said she can sense how afraid they are as she navigates her own stress and exhaustion from the past year and half.

As soon as she is able, she makes an effort to give the patient an opportunity to speak with their loved ones, especially as deaths from the illness become more commonplace.

"They usually wind up on mechanical ventilation," she said. "I try … to make sure they speak to their families because oftentimes that’s the last time they’ll be able to speak to them." 

The current surge in cases in Santa Barbara County has had swift and devastating impacts on local hospitals. As of Wednesday, 82 individuals in Santa Barbara County were hospitalized for COVID-19 — the highest number since February — including 21 in the intensive care unit. Marian Regional holds over half of these patients, with two intensive care units filled and an additional unit recently opened to hold more patients.

While hospital staff at this point are still able to care for all the patients who enter and have not had to delay other treatments, they are concerned about the situation reaching a tipping point. 

"We are now at a point where we are stretched thin. We can still care for the patients we need to care for, but our workforce is exhausted by this and frustrated as well," Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. J. Trees Ritter said. "What we’re seeing right now is a wave of unvaccinated patients presenting to our hospitals with a preventable illness."  

Unlike with previous surges over the past year and a half, officials say the rise in cases could easily be prevented by vaccines, which makes the work that much more exhausting.  

ICU director Barry Feldman said around 99% of the hospital's recent COVID-19 patients have been unvaccinated residents, although a few vaccinated residents with other health conditions have also been admitted.

"These people shouldn’t be having to die, they shouldn’t be having to put their families through this," Feldman said. "For a very small price of wearing masks, for standing a few feet away from someone, for getting a shot … it’s such a small price for such a terrible thing to happen." 

While there are no current pediatric cases at the hospital, COVID-19 cases among local adolescents have resulted in a heart inflammation condition called myocarditis, an effect that in rare instances can also come following vaccination but is much more likely to occur after contracting COVID-19, Ritter said. 

Like other hospitals throughout the state, Marian Regional is also experiencing a nurse shortage made worse by cases of COVID-19 among hospital staff, according to hospital president and CEO Sue Andersen.

Officials are urging all hospital staff to receive the COVID-19 vaccine by Sept. 30 to comply with state vaccine mandates. Around 90% of Marian's approximately 3,200 staff — not including those who work in Dignity Urgent care centers — are vaccinated, although small numbers of staff have been protesting the mandate in recent weeks. 

With the Labor Day holiday this weekend expected to bring gatherings, and the four-day Santa Maria Elks Rodeo kicking off Thursday, hospital officials say they wouldn't be surprised to see cases spike even more within a couple weeks.

While masking and social distancing is encouraged at the mostly-outdoor Elks Rodeo, which in the past has drawn tens of thousands of people, organizers said they had no real way of enforcing further guidelines. 

Although Marian Regional is a sponsor of the event, Chief Medical officer Chuck Merrill said he is more worried now with the rise of the delta variant that crowded events like the rodeo will pose a COVID-19 risk than when cases were lower in the early summer. 

"We would not deliberately sponsor something that could be a super-spreader event," Merrill said. "The high risk is not so much sitting outside in a venue, but it’s going to dinner, it’s when people are drinking and they get less cautious. I fully expect to see a lot of cases in a couple weeks, because I don’t have faith that all people will do what I might do."

COVID-19 vaccines are free and widely available to all residents age 12 and up, regardless of documentation status. To find vaccine providers near you with walk-up vaccinations or appointments, visit myturn.ca.gov, or publichealthsbc.org.

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Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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