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COVID-19 surge threatens to overwhelm some primary care offices

By Rebecca Boone Associated Press

BOISE – Doctor’s offices and urgent care centers are bracing for impact as they again face high patient demand and more staffers out sick from the super-contagious omicron variant.

The number of new COVID-19 cases across the U.S. reached a record-shattering average of 480,000 this week, and some primary care providers fear they will soon be overwhelmed by the surge.

“We have more to worry about than hospitalizations,” said Dr. David Peterman, a pediatrician and the CEO of Primary Health Medical Group in southwestern Idaho. “We’re seeing record numbers in our clinics, and we have 38 of our employees out sick. If primary care doctors cannot see their patients for their hypertension, for sore throats, for diabetes, then we’re in trouble.”

Primary Health’s clinics saw more than 2,000 urgent care patients on Monday, Peterman said, marking the second-busiest urgent care day in company history. That’s a potentially ominous marker – the first-busiest day came Sept. 7, a little over a week before Idaho enacted statewide “standards of care” criteria, allowing overwhelmed hospitals to ration health care as needed to deal with an influx of coronavirus patients. Hospitalization surges typically follow primary care surges by one to two weeks, Peterman said.

Early data suggests omicron – though more contagious – may cause less serious illness than earlier variants of the virus. That could mean the current surge will lead to fewer hospitalizations.

It likely will not mean a reprieve for primary health care providers, which are handling a large portion of the COVID-19 testing demand as well as for caring for patients with colds, strep throat, influenza and the coronavirus patients who don’t require hospitalization but do need care.

Dr. Laura Byerly, the chief medical officer with Virginia Garcia Memorial Medical Center in northwestern Oregon, said her primary care clinics are quickly transitioning back to a telehealth model in anticipation of more staffers getting sick or requiring quarantine.

“We have to do a lot more telemedicine visits than face-to-face because we don’t have the staff to handle the bodies in the building,” Byerly said. “It’s heartbreaking because so much care has been deferred because of previous telehealth needs. We’re quite worried.”

Byerly said she hopes to hire additional staffers in the future to help “catch up” on the deferred care for things such as cancer screening, but for many chronically ill patients the damage will already be done.

“It means that we’ll find people whose diabetes will be in less good control,” Byerly said. “This is what is going to be happening for the next few years across the nation, I would imagine … I’ll tell you that it is causing our doctors and nurse practitioners a significant amount of distress to not be able to provide the high-quality care that they are used to doing.”

In Idaho, where vaccination rates remain low and coronavirus cases are skyrocketing, Peterman worries that schools, basic city services and some health care providers will grind to a stop.

“At a certain point you reach a number of sick employees where you just can’t handle it, and that’s my concern. I want the public to understand that,” he said. “This is nothing to do with politics or any of that frankly nutty stuff. It’s simply about keeping our community safe.”

Health experts say people can guard against catching and spreading omicron the same way as guarding against any other COVID-19 variant: By wearing a mask and avoiding large groups of people. Being fully vaccinated – with a booster shot when eligible – lessens the likelihood of severe illness from coronavirus.