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Doctor: ‘I’m begging you to get a vaccine’

Centra Health officials are pleading with members of the public to consider getting the vaccine as hospitals have already begun to strain under the pressure of a new wave of COVID-19 patients brought on by the delta variant and low vaccination rates in the area.

Tuesday, Aug. 10, Centra officials gathered for a virtual press conference to update the public on the latest wave of the virus. In recent weeks, both Centra Lynchburg General Hospital and Centra Southside Community Hospital in Farmville have experienced large increases in COVID-19 patients, with Lynchburg General doubling its patient numbers in just one week.

On Tuesday, Centra Chief Clinical Officer Dr. Chris Lewis told listeners the virus had remained quiet for much of spring and the early summer months.

At the end of June, Centra Health actually had a 72-hour period in which there were no COVID patients in the entire system.

“Unfortunately, that didn’t last and is certainly no longer the case,” he said.

As of Tuesday, Lynchburg General was up to 39 total COVID-19 patients at the hospital, up six cases from the previous day. Twenty-five of Lynchburg patients were being treated in the hospital’s main coronavirus floor, while 14 patients were in the intensive care unit (ICU). Eight of the 14 ICU patients were on a ventilator.

Southside’s recently reopened COVID-19 unit, Lewis said, was up to five patients as of Tuesday morning.

Lewis said officials believe the recent surge in cases is largely due to the appearance of the new delta variant, adding information from the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) suggests delta is likely now the main strain of the virus currently being seen in the health system’s sick individuals.

Lewis said more hospitalizations are predicted as the area continues to see a high transmission rate of the virus, but the delta variant is already taking its toll on the health care provider.

“We are already in a strained situation in our hospitals,” he said, adding that hospital beds are not unlimited. “As these COVID patients get in and get sicker, we’re frequently seeing them need to head into our ICUs, so that will put a strain on our ability to care for COVID patients as well as the regular patients from our community that come in with heart attacks and strokes and that sort of thing.”

As Centra and the community navigate through this most recent wave of coronavirus cases, Lewis said Centra Health is once again tightening its visitor restrictions at hospitals. Effective Monday, Aug. 16, all Centra hospitals, including Southside in Farmville, will limit visitors in inpatient spaces to one visitor at a time per adult for non-COVID patients. However, the one visitor may interchange during the patient’s hospital stay.

Dr. Jeremy Hardison, Centra’s medical director of critical care services, has been one of the main doctors at the hospital’s ICU taking care of those sick with COVID since the first virus patient arrived almost a year and a half ago.

On Tuesday, Hardison emphasized this new wave of COVID-19 patients is unlike anything the hospital has seen before.

“What I can tell you is that the type of patients that we’ve been seeing over the last two-to-three weeks are very different than what we saw every other time before this.”

Hardison said during previous surges, COVID patients seen at the hospital tended to be older and have multiple other medical problems such as kidney disease, heart disease and, often, obesity. While Centra occasionally saw patients in their 20s, 30s and 40s, most had other issues such as obesity, diabetes and immune suppression.

“But they were rare,” he said. “Almost everyone else was at least in their 50s if not older than that. This group over the last two weeks is markedly different.”

The doctor noted half of Centra’s patients in recent weeks have been under the age of 50.

“We’re talking about 20s, 30s and 40s,” Hardison said, “and these are patients that are not like the ones we saw before. These are patients who do not have a lot of medical problems. I have perfectly fit patients not on any medications, working, not obese, not a diabetic, and yet they’re on mechanical ventilators right now because of the COVID virus. This is what the delta variant is doing.”

Hardison said the majority of the hospital’s younger patients, and all but one patient currently in the ICU are unvaccinated. Like others, Hardison pleaded with members of the public Tuesday to consider getting vaccinated if they haven’t already done so.

“A perfectly healthy 30-year-old is on a ventilator now, fighting for this life, and I need to make sure that the community is aware that the game has changed. You need to get vaccinated. I’m begging you to get a vaccine.”

During Tuesday’s meeting, Centra Senior Vice President and Chief Transformation Officer Michael Elliott noted Centra’s coverage area has seen low vaccination rates compared to the state and the country. He added approximately 60% of Centra’s own caregivers have received the vaccine.

He said the health care provider is looking forward to full Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approval of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, something officials expect to occur in September. Elliott said the hospital is working hard to help get residents off the fence when it comes to vaccination, adding 350 million doses of the vaccine have been administered in the U.S. to date. “Make no bones about this, this drug has been studied and studied and studied,” he said. “We know more about this vaccine than many, many other drugs that are out and have been out for years … We implore everyone, get vaccinated. If you’re on the fence, talk to someone you trust, and we’ll be here to support you all the way.”

In recent weeks, more and more hospitals, including VCU, have announced they will begin requiring employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19. Elliott confirmed Centra is also seriously considering mandating vaccines for employees and advised the hospital will make further announcements regarding this possibility in the coming weeks.

When asked how he felt seeing so many members of the public opt not to take the vaccine, Hardison expressed frustration.

“It’s very frustrating,” he said. “I endorse everyone’s ability to make those choices, but what’s  frustrating is, I’m seeing all of the harm and injury that occurs because of those choices … I have to call that patient’s wife and tell her he’s not going to make it, and yes, he might have if he had gotten the vaccine. That is probably what hurts the most, because this is something that could have been preventable if the right steps had been taken.”

While the increased prevalence of breakthrough cases have caused some members of the public to question the effectiveness of the vaccine, Hardison acknowledged that while vaccinated individuals can still contract COVID-19, the vaccine heavily protects citizens from getting critically ill or possibly dying due to complications surrounding the virus.

“People who are vaccinated can get ill with COVID. The difference is, they don’t end up in my intensive care unit.”

On Tuesday, Lewis said Centra was down to just six COVID-related deaths throughout the month of July, but three COVID patients have already passed in the first week of August alone. Officials expect more fatalities to follow given the level of sickness currently being seen in the ICU.

“If we could take folks up to the unit and show them what this does to young, healthy individuals, I think folks would really quickly realize that vaccination is in their best interest,” Lewis said.

At the end of Tuesday’s press conference, Elliott emphasized high numbers of unvaccinated individuals make it easier for the virus to mutate and become more vicious, creating variants such as delta. He, too, asked members of the public to mask up in public places and get the vaccine.

“We need people to get vaccinated to help prevent future mutations that might be even deadlier.”