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Mason Health gears up for illness season

Washington’s COVID state of emergency ended Oct. 31, but for Mason Health and General, not much has changed.

“There’s a big health care exclusion. We have to continue masking … patients, visitors, staff — we all continue to mask,” Chief Nursing Officer Melissa Strong told the Journal. “That is a requirement. We have expanded our visitor hours, we went back to pretty much pre-pandemic visiting hours.”

COVID is not over.

Kimberly Cooper, program manager for infection prevention and employee health and safety, said Mason County is one of eight counties in the state at high transmission levels. According to the state Department of Health data dashboard, the county has 40 cases per 100,000 population. The county is 61% vaccinated and has had a total of 15,290 cases, 757 hospitalizations and 168 deaths.

“There’s still a lot (of virus) circling out in the community,” Cooper said. “It has not gone away. We don’t expect that it will. Winter is coming, there’s lots of respiratory illness out in the community and the state at large, we’re seeing it across the nation still. It’s not to the emergency status which is why that was repealed, but it’s still definitely out there. We are seeing, on average, a lot of people come through the emergency room but not necessarily admitted. We have maybe two or three people getting admitted a week, so not substantially high numbers because we are seeing more people that have been vaccinated, especially in those high-risk populations so we’re not seeing the numbers of significant illness and deaths that we were seeing last year.”

The cases Mason Health is seeing are more minor than during the height of the pandemic.

Cooper said people should be up to date with vaccinations, and for those at high risk, avoid people who are sick, going into areas where there’s a lot of public interaction, and wear a mask.

The state is dealing with “the big three” — COVID, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) and the flu. Strong said the state is seeing a surge in pediatric patients with RSV, including Seattle Children’s Hospital nearing capacity.

“We are prepared to take a surge if we need to if the Children’s Hospital is over capacity on some of those more stable pediatric patients that require hospitalization,” Strong said. “We have seen an influx in the emergency department with pediatric patients, but we really haven’t seen the influx for admitted patients, but usually we’re a little bit delayed here so with COVID, it took a couple of months before we saw our first patient. Hopefully, that’s not the case here, but we are prepared for it in case it happens.”

RSV generally affects young children and older adults, and Cooper said its appearance is not unusual. It typically appears around the end of fall and the beginning of winter.

The precautions for avoiding it are similar to COVID and other illnesses, including handwashing, covering coughs and sneezes, avoiding touching your face after touching something, cleaning and disinfecting areas after being around someone who is sick, and staying home when you’re sick.

Strong said Mason Health hopes winter isn’t as bad as usual for illness, but it’s prepared if it is.

“We’ve maintained pretty high volumes since the pandemic started. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason, there’s not a particular diagnosis, it’s a mixed bag,” Strong said. “We’re definitely prepared.”

People have the choice to decide what protocols they want to use when going out in public, whether it’s in the grocery store, school or in the office.

Strong said on airplanes, she still wears a mask.

“I took my grandkids to ‘Disney on Ice,’ and I masked,” Strong said. “I absolutely mask there and again, that’s personal choice.”

Mason County Community Health Manager Melissa Casey said one skill she learned from COVID is to be in tune with what she’s going through.

“If I have a headache or a sore throat, anything like that, I stay home, you don’t want to risk it,” Casey said.

There have been some habits from COVID that have been maintained even after the restrictions are gone. Mason Health Senior Director of Ancillary Services Nicole Eddins said she’s a fan of picking up her groceries from the parking lot.

“I think it’s the greatest invention ever made because it saves me about an hour and $50 on things I didn’t need,” Eddins said. “There’s some workarounds that you can implement into your daily life.”

Strong said she will never drink from another water fountain after the pandemic. She said the culture of having to work through an illness while being at the place of your employer has shifted.

“Unless I was on the ground crawling, not able to open my eyes, I would be at work,” Casey said. “I have noticed it with staff as well, just giving each other grace and if somebody’s out, they’re out, they’re sick and they’re protecting you as much as they are themselves.”


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