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Appalachia Health News tells the story of our health challenges and how we overcome them throughout the region. 

Justice Expands Nurse Training Programs As Omicron Concerns Put Added Pressure On W.Va. Hospitals

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Photo courtesy of Gov. Jim Justice's office.
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The omicron variant of COVID-19 will spread quickly throughout West Virginia and likely lead to a surge in cases in January, according to state health officials.

“We are faced with a form of COVID-19 that is more infectious than probably any respiratory virus we've seen in our lifetime,” coronavirus czar Dr. Clay Marsh said at a press conference Tuesday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Monday that omicron accounts for three-fourths of all new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. That shows an explosive growth since the first case was detected about three weeks ago.

As of Tuesday there were three omicron cases detected in West Virginia. The first case was in Marion County.

The CDC also projects the U.S. will see another surge in new daily infections cases, which could peak in January. These projections come from researchers all over the U.S. and differ in their predictions, but even the most optimistic projections say cases will double what they are now.

The CDC said this is because omicron is highly contagious and is able to evade immunities from previous infections and even the vaccines.

Marsh said boosters can help.

“Even in people who have been vaccinated but not boosted, who are eligible, the risk to them is significant to get sick and to end up in hospital beds,” Marsh said.

There are conflicting findings on whether omicron is less or as severe as the delta variant.

Marsh said findings from South Africa’s largest real-world study of the new variant were more optimistic than what the United Kingdom is experiencing.

“[The U.K. is] saying that they have no evidence today that the omicron variant is less severe,” Marsh said.

West Virginia hospitals are sounding the alarm on an influx of COVID-19 patients just before the holidays. The West Virginia Hospital Association issued a statement Monday on what’s at stake and how everyone can help.

The association’s president, Jim Kaufman, said the longer the pandemic goes on the more it wears down on the entire healthcare system.

“So the hospital teams are just exhausted, mentally physically and emotionally… and now we’re losing staff. So the resources we have are really being stretched to the breaking point,” Kaufman said.

West Virginia saw its most COVID-19 hospitalizations just three months ago. There were more than 1000 COVID-19 patients in late September. Since then, hospitalizations have dropped to almost half of that, but are on the rise again.

In the WVHA’s statement, it called for the public to see their primary care doctor or urgent care, rather than come to hospital emergency rooms, for any ailment that isn’t an emergency.

Kaufman says more nurses have left their jobs even since the recent delta peak.

“One temporary nursing agency that we work with, they reported back earlier in the fall that there was almost 45,000 vacant nurses positions available [nationwide]… the entire West Virginia Hospital workforce is 49,000, just to put it in perspective,” Kaufman said.

To combat the losses in the nursing field, the governor announced a plan to give $48 million of CARES Act money to the Higher Education Policy Commission to increase nursing training programs in the state.

Nursing shortages in West Virginia have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and nurses are choosing not to renew their licenses based on stress and burnout, Justice said at his regular press briefing. He indicated that 1,700 nurses have left the field, and 68 percent of them said it was because they were “tired.”

The nurse education expansion will take place at Glenville State College, which will open a joint program with Marshall University, Concord University, which will open a new program, and BridgeValley Community and Technical College, which already has a nursing program.

We're going to aggressively recruit, and we're going to aggressively staff and make every effort to train more and more nurses in the state of West Virginia,” Justice said.

This program is expected to train 2,000 additional nurses in the next four years. The investment will fully fund the West Virginia Nursing Scholarship Program to support students who are pursuing nursing careers in West Virginia. It will develop a nursing faculty loan repayment program.

Appalachia Health News Reporter, jleffler@wvpublic.org, 502-377-0438, @june_leffler
News Director, edouglas@wvpublic.org, 304-556-4946, @AppalachiaEric

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