How DC’s limited health emergency helps hospitals recuperate

A shortage of hospital staff as the omicron variant continues to infect and make people seriously ill has all but forced the D.C. mayor to declare a limited public health emergency through Jan. 26 to allow the hospitals flexibility in how they operate.

The D.C. Hospital Association pleaded for the declaration to the Bowser administration, citing the strain on the health care system as the greatest thus far in the pandemic, Jacqueline Bowens, association president, wrote in a letter last week.

“The impact to health professionals and support personnel who are testing positive for COVID, due to this significant community spread, is also a major factor. This strain is felt throughout the health care continuum,” Bowens said.

The concern is rising around the staffing and health of the health care workers themselves, Wayne Turnage, deputy mayor for the Department of Health and Human Services, said.

“This is different from 2020. In 2020, hospitals had real capacity issues. They weren’t losing staff. But the influx of sick patients was so significant that we had to make plans to expand the footprint of the hospitals. And this time, the response was to the hospitals’ cry that they were losing staff,” Turnage told WTOP.

The limited public health emergency allows hospitals to shift to a Crisis Standard of Care, which permits clinics to suspend elective procedures, hire staff who are licensed out of state or recently graduated with supervision, and allow care partners, such as behavioral health and home health centers, to accept patients when a lower level of care is needed.

“We also recommend the investment of a public education campaign to encourage residents to avoid emergency rooms for COVID testing,” Bowens said.

For weeks, public health officials, including Deputy Director for D.C. Health Patrick Ashley, have been urging patients not to come to the hospital to confirm a COVID-19 test and only to go to the emergency room when life-threatening symptoms are at play.

“That was one of the reasons for the public health emergency. Although the inpatient admissions, the use of ICU beds, started a slow climb, the wait times that the ambulances were experiencing, because so many people were going to the emergency room who weren’t sick … they’re going to receive tests to make sure they don’t have COVID,” Turnage said.

He urged those who feel sick but are not experiencing severe symptoms to stay home, and to utilize the District’s free testing options.

The D.C. Hospital Association echoes Turnage’s plea, requesting that individuals only go to the emergency room for treatment of “emergent conditions.”

“Residents should seek care from their doctor or urgent care for non-emergent conditions and utilize one of the many testing sites the District has established for COVID-19 testing,” the association said in a statement.

The association said its member hospitals are grateful for the public health emergency declaration, and ask the “public’s ongoing support and cooperation to ensure that D.C. hospitals are positioned to meet the critical needs of our patients and the community.”

WTOP’s Scott Gelman contributed to this report. 

More Coronavirus News

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

Megan Cloherty

WTOP Investigative Reporter Megan Cloherty primarily covers breaking news, crime and courts.

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