Dr. Russ Ford, a veteran physician at Sentara RMH Medical Center, was succinct.
He wants the community to get vaccinated.
“All of our business is to keep people healthy or, if they’re sick, to get them better,” he said. “If we have a tool at our disposal to keep them from getting sick in the first place, let’s do it. We really need this.”
According to Sentara RMH officials and a new dashboard on the hospital’s website, there are currently 61 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, which accounts for 32% of the hospital’s total inpatient population. Ford said over 90% of those COVID patients are not vaccinated, and the vaccinated patients the hospital is admitting have “serious underlying medical conditions” such as emphysema.
“Get vaccinated,” Ford said. “Because the vaccinated folks are not getting sick enough to come to the hospital.”
According to the dashboard, which went live Monday morning, Sentara RMH has the highest number of hospitalized COVID patients in the healthcare group’s Virginia sites. That’s why Ford, Sentara RMH Medical Center President Doug Moyer and Cassey Cook, a Briery Branch resident and clinical nurse manager for fourth floor east — one of the COVID units — spoke outside the hospital Monday, pleading with the community to get one of three available vaccinations.
“This virus is very real,” Cook said. “This is a public health and safety issue that is now at the forefront of our community. We are seeing the sickest and the youngest patients we have ever seen.”
According to Ford, during the early portion of the pandemic the hospital was mainly seeing older people hospitalized due to the virus.
“Last winter, generally, we saw 65-, 75-, 85-year-old folks, very ill with the virus,” he said. “Now we’re seeing some of those same age groups, but we’re [also] seeing 20’s, 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. We’re seeing pregnant ladies coming in sick with the virus. We’re seeing college kids come in with the virus, and young, working healthy adults.”
Locally, vaccination numbers have lagged.
According to the Virginia Department of Health’s daily dashboard, Rockingham County is reporting 46% of its population as fully vaccinated with Harrisonburg at 45.2%. Meanwhile, neighboring counties Albemarle and Greene are all reporting over 50% fully vaccinated and Augusta County reporting 49.1% fully vaccinated. Overall, VDH reports that 58.8% of Virginia’s population is fully vaccinated.
When the data is focused just on residents 18 years of age and older, 70.3% of Virginians have been fully vaccinated, with 51.1% of Harrisonburg and 55.5% of Rockingham adults fully vaccinated, according to VDH.
Right now, however, that’s little salve to Cook as local COVID-19 numbers ebb and flow.
“We leave our families day and night to show up and care for others,” she said. “Burnout and job fatigue are consuming us. Health-care workers are mentally, physically and emotionally drained. We are spending hours a shift working with patients to ensure they can breathe comfortably all the while trying to provide that empathy and care to your loved ones who haven’t seen their families in weeks.”
According to Ford, during the past two to three weeks, Sentara RMH has seen COVID numbers similar to last winter’s spike. On Monday, the VDH reported 21 new cases in Harrisonburg, down from the 94 new cases reported on Sept. 2, but up from the 18 reported Sunday. After 42 new cases were reported Sunday in Rockingham County, the number dropped to 24 new cases on Monday, well below the 101 cases reported on Sept. 2.
For the second time during the pandemic, on Sept. 4, 13 county residents were reported newly hospitalized on a single day. The other single day over a dozen county residents were reported newly hospitalized was March 21.
On Saturday, 10 city residents were reported newly hospitalized with the virus while three city residents were reported hospitalized Sunday and Monday.
But there’s still cause for concern, according to hospital officials.
“We will expand our capacity to treat any patients in need,” Moyer said. “But the trade-off is that we’re asking more from the same people who’ve been at the frontlines throughout this entire pandemic. We recognize the fear of health-care worker burnout; there is a limit to how much we can keep asking of the same group of health-care heroes to take on.”
On Monday, the daily seven-day average of new cases in the county was 40 with the city seven-day average at 28.
According to Ford, Sentara RMH has a contingency plan in the books to expand the ICU if needed.
“We have plenty of ICU beds,” he said. “We have plenty of ventilators. Generally, it’s been running 5 to 10% of people getting sick enough to come into a hospital end up on a vent, that’s sort of like a ballpark [figure].”
But, Ford said, the hospital is currently at 85% capacity of its available beds. And, Moyer said, there are longer waits for inpatient rooms and for people to be seen in the emergency department. The hospital has also paused or cut back on all elective procedures “to take care of inpatient demands,” Ford said. “As soon as this sick population goes down in numbers, we’ll be able to resume the usual outpatient surgeries and procedures.”
“Our employees are fatigued,” Moyer said. “It has been an all-hands-on-deck effort now for over a year and a half. Until we get everyone in our community vaccinated, we won’t get a break.”
Cook, dressed in her smock and wearing a mask, reiterated the plea as Sentara RMH Medical Center continued to deal with the strain on its employees.
“We are still trying to provide that passion that we once had,” she said. “But we’re now pulling from an empty well.”