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As of Dec. 14, 2021, unvaccinated patients continue to comprise nearly 4 in 5 of Lancaster General Hospital's total COVID-19 patients and all but a handful of its COVID-19 patients on ventilators.

Lancaster County reported 180 COVID-19 patients in its three hospitals today, breaking the previous pandemic high of 178 set in December 2020, according to data from the state Department of Health.

The grim milestone is a testament to the growing hazard of the pandemic as it enters into its second winter season, especially for unvaccinated people, who are far more likely than those who are vaccinated to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19.

People who were unvaccinated, not fully vaccinated or had an unknown vaccination status comprised 87% of reported COVID-19 hospitalizations in Pennsylvania between Jan. 1 and Dec. 6, according to state data. Unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated people made up 86% of COVID-19-related deaths in the state during that period.

At Lancaster General, the county’s largest hospital, about 79% of the 119 COVID-19 patients on Tuesday were unvaccinated, according to hospital data. That number included all but three of LGH’s patients on ventilators and in the hospital’s ICU.

Just over 56% of eligible county residents were fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Dec. 10, according to state data.

“At this time, the most important thing for everyone to do in the community is to get vaccinated,” said Dr. Michael R. Ripchinski, chief clinical officer at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health. “It’s safe, it’s effective, and over 200 million people in the U.S. have been vaccinated.”

Ripchinski also encouraged anyone who was last vaccinated for COVID-19 more than six months ago to get a booster shot.

Hospitals strained

The county’s largest health system is also looking for ways it can keep COVID-19 patients out of the hospital, Ripchinski said.

All of the county’s local health systems and health care providers – including Lancaster General Health – would benefit from staffing support from the federal or state government, Ripchinski said.

Ripchinski communicated that potential need Tuesday to state Sen. Ryan Aument, R-West Hempfield Township, who is a member of Gov. Tom Wolf’s vaccine task force, which was scheduled to hold a meeting Wednesday.

Aument said he planned to ask the task force to consider using the National Guard to deploy mobile units to provide monoclonal antibodies to communities with high rates of infection – and thus, keep people out of the hospital and from contracting the most serious side effects of the disease.

Monoclonal antibodies, which mimic an immune system’s natural defense built up against a virus, have been found to “modestly reduce” the risk of hospitalization or death in people who have contracted COVID-19, Ripchinski said, adding that the “ultimate solution is to get vaccinated.

“In the short term, if you’re not vaccinated, we want to do the best we can to take care of you at your home,” Ripchinski added. “That will enable us to ensure that we can continue to care for the entire community, whether it’s patients with COVID-related diagnoses, or people with heart- or cancer-related issues -- those patients need our team’s care, too.”

Outlook is worrisome

For now, Lancaster General Health is able to staff the current surge, and is not in discussion about adding more beds in an alternate site, as was discussed in the early stages of the pandemic. But it’s not clear how long the hospital will be able to handle the increasing cases.

“As time goes on it may be more difficult to continue to balance the needs of the COVID patients and those without,” Ripchinski said. “Any support of the state and federal governments for our region and communities would absolutely help during this time.”

County Commissioner Chairman Josh Parsons said Tuesday morning that the county was remaining in communication with the local health systems, but the hospitals had not yet asked the county for assistance.

“We’re almost two years into COVID now,” Parsons said in response to the record high hospitalizations. “There continue to be ups and downs to deal with. We continue to stay in touch with hospitals and talk to them, and if there’s coordination we need to do, we’ll continue to do that as we have throughout the pandemic.”

“It seriously is concerning,” added Aument. “What is clear looking at the numbers is that the overwhelming majority of those hospitalized are the unvaccinated.”

Aument has used his position on the vaccine task force to encourage his constituents to get vaccinated and said he is receiving his booster shot Wednesday, though he opposes vaccine mandates.

“The heavy hand of government ... with many of these folks has served to be counterproductive,” Aument said. “These are folks that don’t want government telling them what to do. When government attempts to do that, they reject it.”

Aument said he believes the state still could increase its vaccination rate if people are given “good and accurate information” from friends, family and medical providers.

Intensifying fall surge

County hospitalizations have been rising to high levels since early November, when they dipped as low as 72 on Nov. 10, as COVID-19 cases shot up from about 159 new cases per day on Nov. 2 to 353 on Dec. 13.

COVID-19 deaths have risen with hospitalizations, totaling 29 from Dec. 5 through Dec. 11, the highest weekly total since early February. The pandemic’s total toll here stood at 1,327 as of Tuesday afternoon, according to data posted to the county’s Covid-19 web page.

The number of reported patients on ventilators was at 21 on Tuesday, down from 28 on Thursday, which tied an earlier pandemic record.

State Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster city, reiterated that the COVID-19 hospitalization surge was preventable by vaccinations.

“When you look at the statistics that show the overwhelming majority of the people that are filling those hospital beds refused to be vaccinated, it is disheartening that they would put themselves and other people who need access to the hospital for reasons other than COVID in jeopardy because they wouldn’t protect themselves and other from COVID,” he said.

Wolf said Tuesday that he does not intend to impose a statewide mask or vaccine mandate but continues to encourage Pennsylvanians to get vaccinated, PennLive reported, based on Wolf’s appearance on a KDKA morning radio show.

“The vaccine is our strategy,” Wolf said.

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