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Declining omicron surge is a promising sign for Pa. and N.J. hospitals. But ‘it’s not over yet.’

Glimmers of hope are emerging in Pennsylvania and New Jersey hospitals as the omicron surge declines — but it's too soon to relax, officials say.

Students at Temple University along Polett Walk near the bell tower on Jan. 24. Students are returning to in-class learning. There was a delay returning because of a surge in COVID-19.
Students at Temple University along Polett Walk near the bell tower on Jan. 24. Students are returning to in-class learning. There was a delay returning because of a surge in COVID-19.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

On Monday, Geisinger Health’s nine Pennsylvania hospitals were filled beyond their capacity by at least 10% — a typical picture of the strain hospitals have been under for weeks. But hospital leaders saw something they hadn’t seen in two months: The system had fewer COVID-19 patients than the previous week.

It was one of the glimmers of hope emerging in Pennsylvania and New Jersey hospitals as the omicron surge declines after peaking two weeks ago.

“I’m optimistic that this may be the first day of the downward trend,” said Gerald Maloney, Geisinger’s chief medical officer. “What we need people to understand is that, [even] with this encouraging news, it’s not that this is over. If we have a continued letting down of the guard, we are, in fact, going to see this pick up again.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Health on Monday announced strike teams would be sent to bolster staffing at some hospitals that request help. State officials also plan to designate facilities with extra space to take patients next month from overwhelmed hospitals and nursing homes, though they didn’t provide details.

Many hospitals in the commonwealth have been in dire straits for weeks, contending with mass staff absences because of coronavirus cases or exposure on top of an existing, widespread shortage of health-care workers. As those absences begin dropping along with community case counts, hospitals still face a long-term staffing crisis.

It was unclear exactly how many extra contracted health-care workers the state would deploy in its strike teams. Staff are “scarce,” the state may not be able to fulfill every request from hospitals, and workers who do get sent to hospitals will stay only one to two weeks, said acting Health Secretary Keara Klinepeter.

The surge’s continued effect was still evident around the region Monday: Pennsylvania’s state prisons halted in-person visits for the next month because of staff shortages. Bucks County officials suspended jury trials through February.

And Temple University, one of several schools welcoming students back to campus for the next semester, banned wearing only cloth masks, instructing students to double-mask with a cloth and surgical mask or wear KN95 masks.

» READ MORE: From boosters to travel restrictions, Philly-area colleges differ in COVID-19 protocols for new semester

Officials in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey cautioned that the pandemic situation remains “extraordinarily serious,” as Klinepeter put it during a visit to Grand View Health in Sellersville.

New confirmed coronavirus cases are sharply declining across the country, though they also remain at levels that are far higher than ever before, according to the New York Times. Meanwhile, hospitalizations appear to be peaking nationwide, as deaths keep rising.

Pennsylvania’s case counts are down 39% and New Jersey’s are down 67% from two weeks ago, according to the Times, but remain higher than the peaks of all previous surges. An average of more than 16,000 new cases are being reported each day in Pennsylvania, as are more than 10,000 in New Jersey.

“What’s different with the omicron surge is not only the speed in which the numbers went up but also the speed in which they’re beginning to come down,” said Donald Yealy, chief medical officer for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “The public should be hopeful, but recognize that the numbers are still very high.”

‘Cautiously optimistic’

Cases have declined in Philadelphia and its collar counties, as well as in every New Jersey county, over the past two weeks, according to the Times data.

In Delaware County, where hospitals have been harder hit by omicron than in neighboring counties, medical adviser Lisa O’Mahony saw reasons to hope that February could mark a turning point.

The county has seen an “impressive decline” in new cases over the past week, she said, and the percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive has dropped to 28%, down from a peak of more than 40% earlier this month.

But the rate needs to get below 5%, she said, and medical reserve corps volunteers are still assisting at several short-staffed hospitals.

That means that, for now, “it’s still not time to relax. I think that’s the important point to get across. The hospitals are still full,” O’Mahony said. “Everybody is cautiously optimistic, and it seems like a few weeks from now things will have improved, I’m hoping dramatically.”

» READ MORE: Omicron surge is causing worker absences, SEPTA delays, and late trash pickup across the region

At hospitals run by Lehigh Valley Health Network, which was strained a bit earlier than Delaware County, department of medicine chair Timothy Friel said employees have seen “a significant change in the right direction” — COVID-19 admissions are down and emergency rooms are noticeably less chaotic than they were earlier this month.

Still, health and hospital officials recommended people not become lax about wearing masks, social distancing, and taking other precautions. One fear, Geisinger’s top medical officer said, is that people start gathering freely and the surge becomes like a house fire that smolders but breaks out again as soon as the fire department leaves.

“Right now, I’d have a cautious optimism that we’re going to have some reprieve,” said Maloney. “I’m very concerned about the what’s-coming-next.”

In New Jersey, new state data offered another reason for optimism: Counts from Dec. 13 to Jan. 9 showed people who were boosted were three times less likely to get a COVID-19 case requiring hospitalization than people who were not.

Still, just under half of the state’s eligible population had gotten the additional shot, a number Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said was “unacceptably low.”

At his regular COVID-19 news briefing, Gov. Phil Murphy said not getting vaccinated is irresponsible.

“I do think it’s akin to drunk driving,” he said. “You’re not only putting yourself at risk, you’re putting other people at risk.”

Staff writers Vinny Vella and Rob Tornoe contributed to this article, which also contains information from the Associated Press.