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WMC doctors see regret, guilt among unvaccinated patients during COVID-19 surge

WATAUGA — A common theme among COVID-19 patients at Watauga Medical Center is regret, according to Watauga Medical Center Dr. Lisa Kaufmann, who works with patients in the COVID-19 isolation units.

After polling her staff, Kaufmann — medical director of the hospital medicine group — said she hears the most that unvaccinated patients feel regret and guilt. She said the patients have those feelings for themselves and their family members when they end up admitted to the hospital and later get intubated.

“They didn’t really believe how sick they could be,” Kaufmann said. “They think this only happens to people who are already really sick. What people don’t fully understand is that this is a serious illness, and even young and healthy people can get really sick.”

For Kaufmann and her staff, seeing these patients get sick and even die is hard, especially when it’s preventable with the availability of vaccines.

“Most of us have an idealized version of a good life,”  said. “You live a life where you accomplish things that bring good to the world and then you reach a certain age and then you die. That’s a full life. To see people dying younger is really sad. To see people dying younger at the start of the epidemic when there wasn’t a huge amount that people could do to prevent it, that was tragic. To see people dying who didn’t even have to get this sick, it’s even sadder.”

The youngest person who has come to the hospital with COVID-19 and died was in their 20s, Kaufman said.

Unvaccinated patients in the COVID-19 units, Kaufmann said, are sick longer even if they eventually survive and go home. Kaufmann said there are some patients in the hospital who are vaccinated and have COVID-19, but those patients are chronically ill and are typically admitted into the hospital multiple times a year.

“You’ll see a frail, elderly person in the next room and someone (next to them) who’s in their 40s, and the frail elderly person who was vaccinated, they’re not nearly as sick,” Kaufmann said.

Before Kaufmann and her staff go into the one of the three COVID-19 isolation units — where currently six of the 15 patients are on ventilators as of Aug. 30 — they put on additional biohazard protective equipment beyond masks.

Kaufman or another doctor will then go into the patient’s room and look at the patient’s vital signs and their blood pressures. They also talk to the patient’s nurse and to a respiratory therapist if needed.

If a patient who has COVID-19 gets worse and can’t breathe on their own, they get put on a ventilator.

“We obviously try to have them breathe on their own as long as possible,” Kaufman said. “We try to avoid it as long as we can but when it becomes clear the patient is no longer going to be able to breathe for themselves, we ask them and most of the time the patient’s themselves are still awake enough to know that they’re wearing out that they can’t get enough air, even with all the devices that we’re using outside of their nose and mouth to help them breathe.”

By the time a doctor is recommending a patient be put on a ventilator, it needs to happen soon. Once a person is on a ventilator, Kaufman said the chance of survival depends on how sick they were to start with. If the patient had a bad heart disease or bad diabetes, their chances aren’t as good.

“What we’re finding with COVID-19 — and more so with this surge than the original surge — is we have a lot of younger people coming in who have never been seriously sick like this,” Kaufman said. “People who thought they were so healthy that they figured ‘well even if I get COVID-19 it won’t be a big deal.’ And then sometimes, it turns out it’s a very big deal and their lungs fill up with inflammatory fluid.”

During the recent COVID-19 surge with the Delta variant, Kaufman said they have seen multiple members of the same unvaccinated family in the hospital at the same time. Sometimes, one of the family members will make it and another won’t.

“It’s really hard for them,” Kaufmann said. “If a survivor persuaded their spouse or their parents to not get vaccinated, which has happened, if that person who was a decision maker survives and the one that kind of wanted to get vaccinated but didn’t want to upset their family, that’s been pretty traumatic.”

Kaufmann said the hospital is also seeing patients who had the original COVID-19 infection, but then come into the hospital with the Delta variant.

“Everybody I know who works in critical care units who work with COVID-19 patients would say we would like a world with no COVID-19, and we don’t have that choice,” Kaufmann said. “We have a choice between something that clearly will reduce severe illness, clearly reduces death, and it’s available, and the safety profile at this point is pretty good.”

Kaufmann said there’s no such thing as a perfect vaccine, but what is available is to give a person a greater chance at preventing COVID-19.

“People are not recovering the way they do from influenza and other viruses,” Kaufmann said. “There’s some people who had symptoms, and they were infected more than 18 months ago and some of them still haven’t recovered. I think what we’ve maybe failed to do is convey just how bad the illness (is).”

She said it’s sad when people believe that the illness is not that big of a deal because it’s a “huge deal,” not for everyone, but for a lot of people.

Kaufmann said that the hospital typically doesn’t have a lot of unexpected deaths, but recently there have been a lot, which she said is “true everywhere” as people get sick faster.

Between Aug. 26, 2020, to April 8, 2021, the average age of 31 of the 34 Watauga County resident deaths attributed to COVID-19 was 81, according to death records obtained by the Watauga Democrat. The three deaths that have since occurred — one in July and two during the week of Aug. 23 — were between the 25-49 age range, 65-74 age range and the 75 plus age range, according to AppHealthCare.

Every single death in Ashe and Watauga counties has been among those who are not vaccinated.

“Our deepest sympathies are with those who have lost someone due to COVID-19.” said AppHealthCare Health Director Jennifer Greene. “Each of these lives is important and a valuable member of our community. We urge anyone who is unvaccinated to not wait and get a vaccine today. The vaccines are working like they should and helping prevent severe illness, hospitalization and death. We care deeply about our community and don’t want to see anyone experience hardship or loss due to this virus.”

Watauga County has 126 active COVID-19 cases as of Aug. 30. More information on Watauga County COVID-19 information or how to get a vaccine can be found at

Children's Playhouse reopens with new renovations after more than a year

BOONE — After more than a year of being closed due to COVID-19, the Children’s Playhouse reopened Aug. 27, for children and their families.

While it was closed, the playhouse also went through renovations and updates to make it more pleasant for visitors.

“It’s wonderful to see families,” said Kathy Parham, executive director of The Children’s Playhouse. “A mom, last week told me — I asked her if they were having a good time — and she said ‘oh the best’ and she said ‘I had to take a picture and send it to my husband because it was the first time I had seen my son pretend to play in a year-and-a-half.’”

Parham said the mission of the playhouse is to provide an enriching, educational play environment for children, while at the same time offering support to parents.

“We’re all about community and supporting your community and being a place that that kids and parents can spend time together and families can meet other families,” Parham said. “That was really hard during the pandemic, but we tried to still fulfill our mission through the play kits.”

The Children’s Playhouse compiled 1,600 play kits with 14 different themes that Parham said had enriching educational activities for children and their families. Parham worked with volunteers and 19 other agencies to get those out to families in need when the pandemic first started in March 2020.

The playhouse is still taking some precautions due to COVID-19. Everyone in the playhouse age two and up is required to wear a mask and families must make a reservation while it operates on reduced capacity.

During the renovations while it was closed, Parham said the playhouse installed a new IQAir Purification System to help filter out the air and will circulate outside air in as the weather allows.

“We’ve done some pretty extensive renovations just to make it a lot more pleasant,” Parham said. “We replaced ceilings and redid lighting and painted every room.”

One of the paintings Parham and volunteers completed was a new mural around the rock wall that children can play on. They also added color changing light lab, a projector to play with shadows and baby bins for younger children to play with individually before staff sanitize them.

“We just feel really lucky to be part of this community and we had wonderful volunteers that helped us with our renovation from everything from helping build cabinets to painting the walls to gardening and just really awesome people that lent there skills,” Parham said.

For families, reopening of the playhouse means more time for their children to play.

Olivia Lipps, a mom who goes to the Children’s Playhouse with her young child, said it’s been great to be back in the playhouse. She had been going to the playhouse since her song, Oliver, was a baby.

“It’s nice to have a fresh feel on everything,” Lipps said. “It’s been really interesting. He doesn’t really notice anyone else. It’s his world and everyone is living in it. The playhouse has been so much fun. It’s like a little safe place.”

Nicole Wise, a mom who brings her children to the playhouse, said it’s been wonderful to be be back in the playhouse after really being isolated for so long.

“This is a great reintroduction without being too overwhelming and we feel like it’s safe,” Wise said. “It’s wonderful. We’re thrilled.”

Wise said she thinks her youngest child will have some challenges because she doesn’t really have any memories of being out in public and around crowds, but being in the playhouse is good baby step for her to be around more people.

Parham said she heard from one mom who said her youngest was a little startled at seeing other children because she just hadn’t been around other children yet.

Before the pandemic, Parham said the playhouse would have about 14,000 visits a year and they had more than 300 family memberships.

More information on how to join the Children’s Playhouse — or to reserve a play time — can be found at

Boone man charged after two larcenies in two weeks

BOONE — A man from Boone was arrested on Thursday, Aug. 26, after law enforcement investigations linked two separate August breaking and entering incidents to him.

According to Watauga County Sheriff Len Hagaman, deputies responded to 1115 Deck Hill Road in Boone on Aug. 13 in response to an alleged breaking and entering and larceny. The victim had all of their possessions locked in a basement area, but numerous items were reported stolen, Hagaman said.

An investigation from the Watauga County Sheriff’s Office developed a suspect — Jake Ryan Eldreth, of 2228 North Pine Run Road — who was found in possession of several of the stolen items.

Hagaman said that Eldreth was given the opportunity to assist in recovering additional stolen items he had already sold.

On Aug. 26, the Boone Police Department responded to a reported breaking and entering and larceny at 225 Birch St., Boone, and were later able to obtain video footage of the suspect.

Both law enforcement agencies identified Eldreth as the suspect, according to Hagaman. Detectives from both agencies obtained a search warrant for Eldreth’s residence, where they were able to recover numerous stolen items related to both investigations, according to Hagaman.

Eldreth was arrested and charged with two counts of felony breaking and entering and two counts of felony larceny. He was taken before the magistrate and received a $25,000 secured bond.

Eldreth was issued an Oct. 12 court date.

App State announces enrollment of 20,641 students, record high number of underrepresented students

BOONE — Appalachian State University announced Aug. 27 an enrollment of 20,641 students in fall 2021 — the largest enrollment to date — which includes historic numbers of first-year and underrepresented students.

The 3.1 percent increase in overall enrollment supports the university’s continued slow and steady growth since 2014, App State stated in a press release.

“The data speak directly to the dedication of our faculty and staff in supporting and encouraging future generations of Mountaineers,” said App State Chancellor Sheri Everts. “Our steady increases in the enrollment of underrepresented and transfer students reflect our university’s commitment to making higher education accessible for all students. These enrollment successes are particularly meaningful since they were accomplished amid the immense challenges presented by a global pandemic.”

First-year enrollment growth breaks records

App State has a total of 4,099 first-year students, marking the first time the university has enrolled more than 4,000 first-year students. Of note, underrepresented students compose 19.1 percent of the total first-year population, or 784 students, an increase of 5.7 percent since 2020.

Underrepresented student enrollment reaches historic high

The university stated that Everts continues to prioritize and support diversity and inclusion initiatives at App State, including the establishment of the Diversity and Inclusion Accountability Team and the appointment of Jamie Parson as interim chief diversity officer following the retirement of Willie Fleming — App State’s first cabinet-level chief diversity officer, who was also hired by Everts.

App State reached its highest enrollment of underrepresented students to date — 18.2 percent of the total population, or 3,759 students, an increase of 6.3 percent since 2020.

App State stated it has increased its total underrepresented student population by 66 percent since 2014, and, in the same time period, it has more than doubled its first-year underrepresented enrollment — a 108 percent increase.

Enrollment from rural populations surpasses goals 3 years early

The university enrolls 5,865 in-state, degree-seeking undergraduate students from rural populations. This constitutes 34.3 percent of that total population at App State.

As part of the University of North Carolina System’s strategic plan, App State committed to increasing enrollment of students from rural populations. Of note, the university surpassed its fall 2021 benchmark set for rural student enrollment nearly three years early, in 2018.

Undergraduate enrollment shows steady growth despite pandemic

Undergraduate enrollment has increased 2.7 percent since 2020, totaling 18,555 students.

First-generation students compose 32 percent of the total undergraduate population, with 5,939 students.

The university’s overall 2021 first- to second-year retention rate — a primary performance indicator for institutions across the country — remained steady at 86.2 percent, more than four percentage points above the national average.

Online enrollment up for second year, launching new online vet tech program in 2022

App State Online enrollment (undergraduate and graduate) has increased by 6.4 percent for a total of 1,610.

In fall 2022, App State will launch a new four-year online degree program for licensed veterinary technicians — a partnership with Banfield Pet Hospital®, the leading provider of preventive veterinary care in the U.S. and part of the Mars Veterinary Health family of practices. The program will address the market demand — particularly in rural communities — for skilled veterinary professionals.

Graduate student enrollment is up 6.3 percent for a total of 2,086, and App State Online graduate enrollment exceeded 1,000 students for the first time since 2010.

Transfer student population grows by nearly 5 percent

App State stated it has expanded and strengthened relationships with eight community colleges in Western North Carolina to provide a seamless pathway for students to complete degrees at App State through the Aspire Appalachian Co-Admission Program.

This fall, new transfer students total 1,524, an increase of 4.5 percent from 2020.

Improvements continue on campus infrastructure

To complement and support its enrollment growth, App State continues to enhance its physical infrastructure. In July, the university opened the third of four new residence halls, and in spring 2021 App State re-opened the renovated Sanford Hall — an academic building in which almost every undergraduate Mountaineer has a class during their college career. More information can be found on the Appalachian’s Future website.

All numbers reported reflect App State’s fall 2021 census data as of Aug. 27. The University of North Carolina System Office determines the census date to be the 10th day of each fall and spring semester, by which all students should be registered for all of their courses for the semester.