Delaware hospitals are so full that patients are being treated in hallways. Already overburdened and emotionally exhausted, health care workers are preparing for more patients after the holidays as the omicron variant emerges and flu season arrives.
Gov. John Carney flanked virtually by leaders from ChristianaCare and Beebe Healthcare made a public plea Tuesday afternoon for Delawareans – vaccinated and unvaccinated – to return to wearing masks in public and crowded settings.
But his direction remains only a suggestion. Carney didn’t announce any new mandates for individuals or businesses in the face of the latest COVID-19 surge.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to how do you get people to do things that, in many cases, they don’t want to do?” Carney said, adding he hopes the hospital leaders sharing their experiences will show the importance of wearing a mask.
“We currently don’t have a state of emergency to that effect,” Carney said. “It doesn’t mean we couldn’t put one in place, obviously, but our objective really is to have voluntary compliance there.”
Carney along with ChristianaCare Chief Operating Officer Sharon Kurfuerst and Beebe CEO David Tam urged unvaccinated Delawareans to get vaccinated and those who have been vaccinated to receive a booster shot.
The spread of COVID-19 – Delaware has reported an average of 748 cases per day over the past week – has returned to a level unseen since last January. At 390, Delaware’s COVID-19 hospitalizations are approaching last winter’s high mark of 474.
There are more people now hospitalized in Delaware than at any previous point in the pandemic because more people with non-COVID-19 ailments are requiring hospitalization. Many delayed care in the past year and a half, Kurfuerst said.
“This is a balancing act for us every single day,” Kurfuerst said. “Our plea for help is to take the burden off the health care system and off our health care workers. Our health care workers have been fighting COVID-19 since day one. … They see an avoidable illness every single day because of COVID.”
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Carney believes the situation is best approached by Delawareans accepting individual responsibility and voluntarily getting vaccinated and wearing masks. He said without the federal money Delaware received early in the pandemic to support businesses closed or limited by the state’s mitigation measures, he would be wary of reimplementing business restrictions.
He will consider “restrictive measures” short of closing businesses.
Compared with earlier points in the pandemic, Delaware should be in “a way better place” because of the vaccine, he said. To date, 67.3% of Delawareans eligible for the vaccine have received two doses or the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. About a third of Delawareans have received a booster shot.
Tam said a majority of Beebe’s patients are unvaccinated, but some fully vaccinated Delawareans have also required hospitalization as more transmissible COVID-19 variants have emerged.
The current surge in cases – a 32% increase in the past two weeks – has been mostly fueled by the delta variant. The omicron variant, which is likely more transmissible than delta, was first detected in Delaware last week when it accounted for 73% of new cases nationwide.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the current vaccines are expected to protect against severe illness, hospitalization and death due to the omicron variant, but breakthrough cases are likely to occur.
In response to the surging case levels, some East Coast cities recently announced new mandates. In Philadelphia, proof of vaccination will be required for indoor dining beginning Jan. 3. Washington, D.C., reimplemented its mask mandate Tuesday and announced expanded testing options.
Leaders in nearby states with whom Carney has often acted in tandem throughout the pandemic have largely stayed away from reimplementing restrictions for the general public and have instead emphasized the importance of vaccination.