Liberty Regional Medical Center Chief Nursing Officer Donna Cochrane painted a dark picture Monday of her hospital’s ongoing battle with the resurgent COVID-19 pandemic, calling it something she hasn’t seen in 26 years of nursing.
Another surge of COVID-19 patients, the majority of them unvaccinated, is overwhelming the staff at the Hinesville hospital.
“We are tired, we are at our wit’s end, and we are overwhelmed,” she said.
And Cochrane wasn’t the only one, as medical providers from a number of hospitals in the eight-county Coastal Health District gathered at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Garden in Chatham County to issue an appeal to the unvaccinated public that can be summed up in two words, or three, if you’re polite.
Get vaccinated. Please.
“We’re imploring our communities to listen to the science, listen to those same doctors who have been here for you when you broke your arm, or your spouse had a heart attack,” said Dr. Stephen Thacker, the associate chief medical officer at Memorial Health University Medical Center and a pediatrician by training.
Thacker said neither he nor any other doctor at Monday’s press conference thought they’d be “experiencing the worst of the pandemic 18 months after the first case,” and “certainly not after six months of a vaccine we know will curb the pandemic is made available to our communities.”
The message the vaccine will help end the pandemic seems to have fallen on a lot of deaf ears, according to numbers provided by Coastal Health District spokeswoman Sally Silberman.
Chatham only has a 42-percent vaccination rate; Bryan and Glynn each have 40 percent rates, and it’s all downhill from there. Liberty County’s current COVID-19 vaccination rate is 22 percent. Long County’s vaccination rate is 15 percent, the lowest in the CHD.
At the same time, infections are increasing. Liberty Regional had 33 people in the hospital with COVID-19 on Monday; St. Joseph’s had 97; Memorial Medical Center had more than 100.
What’s more, health officials said Monday there have been seven COVID-19 deaths in the last seven days. And the infection rate among children through age 17 is going up faster than in any other age group, with cases in Chatham County up 133 percent in the last two weeks.
Most if not all those infected, and those who get sickest, had not been vaccinated.
“For some reason we can’t get this message to our communities,” said Dr. Alan Brown, the chief medical officer for Southeast Georgia Health System. “This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated, and largely avoidable, and that’s very frustrating and taxing for people that are working hard every day, working long days, working many days without rest.”
Health officials say the reluctance to get the vaccine – for whatever reason, from politics to social media misinformation coupled with relaxed masking and social distancing requirements, as well as the arrival of the Delta variant of COVID-19 -- has caused a spike in cases equal to the worst days of the pandemic.
“We’re a year and a half into this, and we’re currently seeing our third major spike of infections, and we’re at the same level as our prior peak,” said Dr. Jeff Kenney, medical director for St. Joseph’s Hospital Emergency Department. “Unfortunately, we expect this number to go up.”
Kenney said the increased numbers of those hospitalized due to COVID-19 strain resources and lead to longer waits for other patients. He also recalled a time in 2020 when the community supported health care in its fight against the pandemic, citing everything from restaurants providing free meals to letters of support to healthcare heroes from school children.
“We felt the love and support carry us through some tough times,” Kenney said. “We’re asking for your help again. Please wear a mask to protect yourself and others and get vaccinated. This is the support health care workers need right now.”
Health care providers said Monday the vaccine won’t necessarily prevent someone from getting COVID-19, but it will prevent someone from getting critically ill from it. They also said that the Pfizer vaccine, while still not approved by the FDA, has been shown to work through the millions of doses administered so far in the pandemic.
“There are one of two outcomes with regard to becoming infected with this variant from this virus,” Thacker said. “One is potentially becoming harmed while spreading the infection to others if you’re unvaccinated. The other is being vaccinated and if exposed experiencing low to moderate symptoms, but you will be well and your life spared.”
Coastal Health District Director Dr. Lawton Davis opened Monday’s press conference by noting “back in December there was a palpable feeling of hope when we received those very first shipments of vaccine, and fortunately, a lot of people took advantage of it,” he said. “Unfortunately, a lot of people have not yet chosen to do so.”
So many are avoiding the vaccine some hospitals, such as LRMC, have un-administered doses on hand about to expire.
That’s a hard thing for doctors and nurses to understand.
“It’s lunacy we’re having to drag people out of their own harm’s way and make them realize the vaccine is going to save their life,” Brown said. “It’s very frustrating.”