BOONE — After approximately three months of seeing no hospitalizations due to COVID-19, Watauga Medical Center has 11 patients hospitalized due to COVID-19 as of Aug. 16.
The hospital has two COVID-19 isolation units set up with a capacity to treat 17 total COVID-19 patients combined. The units are independent of the 10-bed ICU. Watauga Medical Center treats COVID-19 patients from Ashe, Avery and Watauga counties as well as other nearby counties.
Of the patients who are hospitalized due to COVID-19, 80 percent of them are not vaccinated, according to Rob Hudspeth, senior vice president for system advancement at Appalachian Regional Healthcare System. He added that the patients’ ages vary, but the majority of the patients are between 50 and 65 years old.
The youngest patient that has been hospitalized at WMC due to COVID-19 was 40 days old and the oldest was 90 years old. Hudspeth said the 40-day-old patient ended up being OK.
“Far and away, unvaccinated people are those patients that have severe respiratory illness,” Hudspeth said. “The patients that have been vaccinated, by and large, fare far better. Their symptom severity is much less.”
The Triad HealthCare Preparedness Coalition region — which includes Alexander, Alleghany, Ashe, Caldwell, Catawba, Davie, Davidson, Forsyth, Guilford, Iredell, Randolph, Rockingham, Rowan, Stokes, Surry, Watauga, Wilkes and Yadkin — has 619 people hospitalized with 161 of those in the ICU as of Aug. 16.
As of Aug. 16, AppHealthCare reports there are 66 active COVID-19 cases in Watauga County with 85 people being monitored. There have been 5,016 total cases in the county and 32 deaths.
ARHS has reinstated its daily meetings among leadership and other regional hospitals. Hudspeth said a lot of communities are in the same boat as WMC as far as seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases.
“We talk about bed capacity and transfer options just don’t exist today, because those health care systems are at capacity also,” Hudspeth said.
Hudspeth said the hospital has the ability up and add another COVID-19 unit, but if that was needed it would affect the care the hospital can provide.
The hospital has also established a pediatric workgroup that consists of pediatricians, staff from the birthing center, along with respiratory therapists and care management in preparation for potential surge of COVID-19 in pediatric and adolescent populations.
ARHS has also established a COVID-19 virtual hospital to help patients that are COVID-19 positive but do not have severe symptoms. Hudspeth said the goal of the virtual hospital is to help a patient recover while quarantining at home. A patient receives an oxygen pulse oximeter and receives daily calls from a nurse navigator to check their vital signs.
“We have ramped up yet again,” Hudspeth said. “It’s been an amazing sort of response yet again from our operations teams. We feel prepared, but the community bears some responsibility in helping protect health care workers and then each other.”
As of Aug. 16, 53 percent of the population in Watauga County has been partially vaccinated while 49 percent have been fully vaccinated, according to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services.
But COVID-19 isn’t the only problem ARHS and health care facilities are facing.
“Our biggest issue right now, just like every other hospital in this country, is related to staffing,” Hudspeth said. “So many people in the industry have retired or decided to pursue a different type of career. People are exhausted.”
Of the 1,500 person workforce, ARHS has filled over 400 positions this year alone. In other words, more than a quarter of the workforce had turnover this year.
Because of that turnover and potential for more burnout due to the new surge, ARHS has developed an all hands on deck approach.
“We have nurses that work in our ambulatory practices — in offices — that are now volunteering to step up in critical care roles because they’ve had some of that training because our frontline workers are exhausted. They’re burnt out.”
ARHS has also dealt with expenses because the system has to train and onboard new nurses as well as hire contract nurses to help with the surge and staffing issues.
“The cost to replace a nurse with 25 years of experience is significant,” Hudspeth said. “We’re not losing money just on COVID-19. We’re losing people. The expense associated with losing those personnel is significant to us.”
Along with burnout, Hudspeth said they have had some cases of COVID-19 among ARHS employees. While Hudspeth said the vaccination rate for ARHS is “really high” he said the system has rolled out a new vaccine incentive program.
“It’s a program that’s designed to encourage employees that are not vaccinated to get vaccinated,” Hudspeth said. “If they choose not to, (we) require them to wear N95 masks while on campus. We require them to do COVID-19 testing.”
Once the Food and Drug Administration fully approves the vaccine outside of the emergency use authorization, Hudspeth anticipates that most health care organizations will require employees to take the vaccine — except for religious or medical reasons — just as they require other immunizations like for measles, flu and rubella.
As of Aug. 16, WMC has reinstated vendor restrictions and masks are required for all employees. All ARHS facilities also have visitor restrictions in place. Hudspeth said people under the age of 18 are not allowed to visit, or even accompany another visitor.