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Every single person currently in Dr. Adam Wells’ ICU at Omaha’s Methodist Hospital is a COVID-19 patient. 

The director of Methodist Hospital’s ICU is among the top doctors in the state who spoke to media over Zoom Dec. 1 to plea for Nebraskans to get their vaccination or booster shot as the state reaches this year’s highest level of COVID-19 hospitalizations. 

“We can create ICU beds… but what we can’t create (are) our nurses, our teams, all the staff that are needed in order to take care of those patients,” said Dr. Adam Wells in a Zoom call on Dec. 1, 2021. His ICU at Methodist Hospital is currently filled with COVID-19 patients.

As of Tuesday, 555 people are hospitalized due to COVID-19 in the state. In Douglas County, there were 276 individuals hospitalized who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, with 102 of them receiving adult ICU level care, according to recent local hospital reports shared by the Douglas County Health Department.

“What I see that’s the most devastating is this continued despair and anguish that these poor families have to go through watching their loved ones,” said Dr. Wells on the call. “But on top of that, just the unimaginable emotional toll that it’s taking on all of our staff.”

From doctors to nurses to service staff who make sure patients are fed and rooms are cleaned, the almost two-year long pandemic has pulverized the mental, emotional and physical resources of  hospital staff across the state. And now, the U.S. is on the verge of another coronavirus surge with Nebraska “smack in the middle” of the nation’s COVID-19 hotspot, according to Dr. Matthew Donahue, the state’s acting epidemiologist. 

Chart shared by Nebraska health officials on Dec. 1, 2021.

What’s most alarming this time is a new trend healthcare workers across the state are seeing in their crowded ICU’s — the sickest patients on ventilators due to COVID-19 are young, unvaccinated people ranging from ages 18 to 40.

“The sad thing is, it didn’t have to be that way,” said Dr. Robert Plambeck, who specializes in critical care at CHI Health. “They could have gotten vaccinated and not wound up in the ICU and dying on a ventilator.” 

For many it’s a stark reminder of how COVID-19 swept up Nebraska’s medical facilities in the fall of 2020. One difference this time is that in recent months, Dr. Plambeck has cared for unvaccinated patients who are his age — 36 — and watched them succumb to COVID-19 or, if they’re lucky, leave with life-altering health issues like lung scarring.

“If they could go back, yeah, they’d get vaccinated,” he said. “But at that point, it’s too late.”

Since late October, people in Nebraska who were not fully vaccinated were ten times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 than those who are fully vaccinated, according to data shared by Dr. Donahue.

51.8% of Nebraskans ages 20 to 34 are fully vaccinated, and 65.8% ages 35 to 44 are fully vaccinated, according to the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services Hospital Capacity Dashboard.

Looking at hospitalization rates by vaccination status and by age, young unvaccinated 30 year olds are being hospitalized at similar rates as vaccinated individuals over 80, Dr. Donahue said.

At the University of Nebraska Medical Center, staff has cared for 4,000 inpatients with COVID. About 1,000 of those patients have been in the ICU, 500 of which were intubated. About half of the intubated patients will die, according to Dr. Brian Boer, who is the section chief of critical care medicine at Nebraska Medicine.

Chart shared by Nebraska health officials on Dec. 1, 2021.

“I think that’s what people don’t understand,” Dr. Boer said. “It’s like, oh, just I might get sick and might have a rocky course. But that’s not the case.”

The leap in COVID-19 hospitalizations is putting more stress on an already strained health care system and its workers, making it harder for non COVID patients to access hospital care.

“We recognize people make bad choices, and may choose not to get vaccinated, for example, but it’s really kind of crushing our health care system at this point,” Dr. Boer said.

At this time last year, hospitals put off elective surgeries ahead of the anticipated winter surge and “everybody was all in for the fight,” he said. Now, half of Boer’s staff remains. 

“We recognize people make bad choices, and may choose not to get vaccinated, for example, but it’s really kind of crushing our health care system at this point,” said Dr. Brian Boer during a Zoom call for media on Dec. 1, 2021. Boer is the section chief of critical care medicine at Nebraska Medicine.

People retired early, took traveling jobs to make more money elsewhere, or quit health care altogether because of burnout and for their mental health, health officials said Wednesday. And with increasing hospitalizations and shorter staffs of nurses and doctors, hospitals may not have their normal ratio of professionals to care for patients.

“We can create ICU beds… but what we can’t create (are) our nurses, our teams, all the staff that are needed in order to take care of those patients,” he said.

All in all, Nebraska healthcare workers’ abilities to take on critical COVID cases are not what they once were, Dr. Boer said. 

“We can’t do it,” he said. “We do do it — because it’s our job. But it’s getting old when every single person that rolls through the door. It’s like yep, unvaccinated. Again, shocker.”

Doctors say now is the time to get vaccinated or receive the booster shot.

It’s uncertain to Dr. Donahue when this current surge will end. But doctors agree that vaccinations and booster shots remain the light out of the pandemic, and the proven way to protect yourself and the community from COVID-19.

“We’re coming from the reality that patients are dying preventable deaths from not getting vaccinated,” Dr. Plambeck said.

Chart shared by Nebraska health officials on Dec. 1, 2021.

Dr. Adam Wells hopes vaccinated individuals can talk peacefully with family and friends who are not yet vaccinated to understand their reasons and encourage them to consider being vaccinated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends that everyone ages 18 and older who is fully vaccinated should get their booster dose either 6 months after their initial Pfizer or Moderna series or 2 months after their initial J&J vaccine.

You can find out where to get the first dose of your COVID-19 vaccination in Douglas County here and, if you’re eligible, schedule your booster shot here. Look here to find out what locations offer free COVID-19 testing.

 For more information on COVID-19 you can call the Douglas County COVID-19 Information line at (402) 444-2400 between 8:30 to 4:00 Monday through Friday. Se habla Español, también.

contact the writer at bridget@el-perico.com


Subscribe to The Reader Newsletter

Our awesome email newsletter briefing tells you everything you need to know about what’s going on in Omaha. Delivered to your inbox every day at 11:00am.

Become a Supporting Member

Subscribe to thereader.com and become a supporting member to keep locally owned news alive. We need to pay writers, so you can read even more. We won’t waste your time, our news will focus, as it always has, on the stories other media miss and a cultural community — from arts to foods to local independent business — that defines us. Please support your locally-owned news media by becoming a member today.

Bridget Fogarty, Report for America Corps Member

Bridget Fogarty is a Report for America Corps member reporting with The Reader and its billingual (Spanish/English) sister publication El Perico.

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