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'We are looking at a very dire situation': Health care workers plan for staffing strains due to omicron variant

From small pharmacies to big healthcare systems, planning is underway to deal with staffing issues caused by the omicron variant of COVID-19.

PORTLAND, Ore. — As the fast-moving COVID-19 omicron variant impacts air travel and local sporting events, Oregon's health care system is determining how to deal with the incoming omicron wave.

With such a highly transmissible variant, plus the strain already on health care workers nearly two years into the pandemic, considerable impacts to staff may be inevitable. 

In Southeast Portland, Brooklyn Pharmacy owner Pat Hubbell told KGW they have been following safety measures throughout the pandemic, from physical distancing to installing protective plexiglass at the counter. 

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"We've been really lucky... that we haven't had any significant illness here, so we hope to continue that," Hubbell said. "We have a small staff and if we do have a small outbreak here, it can be a situation where we may have to close the doors for a day or two to see if we can get everybody back on track before we have any issues infecting anybody else."

On a larger scale, staff at Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center are also looking ahead to the worst of the surge, while handling the current strains and shortages many health care systems are dealing with. 

"We're really trying to protect against the tidal wave of community spread that ultimately will be here," said Hazel Wheeler, Virginia Garcia's health and safety programs manager. "The will definitely be positive [cases]. There's just no way around that... That will definitely be something that we have to deal with. I know that we are starting our planning on what that sort of constrained staffing looks like, but at this point, [omicron] is not really the driver of the issues; it's just two years of a pandemic."

Kevin Mealy, a spokesperson for the Oregon Nurses Association, said staff shortages have been an issue for a long time, so it will be even more of challenge in the weeks and months ahead with the omicron surge. 

"The gaps that were always there are now more apparent because nurses are not able to be the Band-Aid that stretches over them and holds them together," Mealy said. "The fact that we have been reliant on solutions like traveling nurses and the National Guard speaks to the staffing crisis we are feeling right now. Our hospitals were only able to run at a very stretched emergency capacity with the supports in place. Without them, and with more cases, we are looking at a very dire situation."  

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