BERKS COUNTY, Pa. — The demand on health centers and emergency rooms has been incredibly high over the last few weeks, and it continues to increase, according to Penn State Health, which includes St. Joseph Medical Center in Bern Township.

The health network's officials said that's largely due to three factors: the surge in COVID-19 with the omicron variant, people sick with other illnesses or medical problems, and staffing shortages.

"Not only are we experiencing a challenge on the front end of caring, we're also experiencing the challenge of our own teams being victims of this disease," said Debra Addo, Penn State Health's chief operating officer.

Currently, Penn State Health has a total of 216 COVID patients collectively at all of its four hospitals, including St. Joe's. That's just a stone's throw from Dec. 29, 2020, when it had 230, its highest number ever.

"The number of patients in our ICUs with COVID has been the highest that we have seen, and these patients are extremely sick, requiring mechanical ventilation and significant ICU resources," said Dr. Fahad Khalid, Hershey Medical Center's chief of hospital medicine.

West Reading-based Tower Health released a statement reading in part: "We need the continued help and support of everyone in the community now more than ever to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to ensure our team members and resources are available to patients with the greatest need."

"Our models that we're looking at are showing us increasing numbers for at least the next three to four weeks or so," said Dr. Peter Dillon, Penn State Health's executive vice president and chief clinical officer.

Officials with St. Joe's and Reading Hospital continue to stress the importance of vaccinations and boosters.

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