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Area hospitals fill with COVID patients, as people shun advice to halt spread, health officials said

Area hospitals fill with COVID patients, as people shun advice to halt spread, health officials said


On a day the number of COVID-19 patients in Roanoke-area hospitals rose to the highest level yet, the Associated Press released a poll showing that more people today than in April disbelieve what the government and the media tell them about the virus.

“I have never experienced this level of mistrust or misinformation,” Dr. Cynthia Morrow, director of the Roanoke City and Alleghany Health Districts, said Tuesday.

Morrow and Dr. Molly O’Dell, who has been leading the local pandemic effort since March, each week discuss how the virus is acting in the Roanoke region.

While other places talk about second and third waves, locally there have been no waves. The numbers just keep climbing, as people either tire of vigilance or disbelieve what local health officials are saying.

“Even with HIV-AIDS when it first became understood by the public, we didn’t get this type of pushback,” O’Dell said. “A subset of the population does not believe in vaccines but it does not come anywhere near the volume of folks here who choose not to believe or choose not to follow recommendations.”

Morrow said, “We have no agenda other than to improve the health of the communities we serve. We are an evidence-based, science-based public health agency. When we speak, we speak numbers.”

The numbers provide information that is then turned into knowledge about the disease, which is shared with communities to help people make wise decisions, she said.

“Recommendations are all based on numbers that tell us the story that COVID is real. It’s happening in our communities. We have 51 people in the hospital right now who are suffering with COVID. This does not just affect 51 people, it impacts all their families and loved ones,” Morrow said. “We have 58 people, 58 of our residents, who have died with this disease. They are numbers, but every one of those numbers tells a story of a person who was loved and who was part of our community. We have no reason to lie about these numbers.”

According to the AP poll, 53% of Americans trust their health provider a great deal or quite a bit, while 36% have high trust in federal health officials, 26% in state or local governments, 18% in the news media, 17% in family and friends, 16% in President Donald Trump, 12% in search engines and 6% in social media.

Also Tuesday, Carilion Clinic held a virtual news conference to push out the same message.

“We are about to enter the seventh month of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I know some people are tired of talking about preventing the spread. The reality is, however, that our region is experiencing the highest number of COVID-19 hospitalizations to date. If there was ever a time to practice masking, hand washing and social distancing, it would be right now,” said Dr. Patrice Weiss, Carilion’s chief medical officer.

Carilion is treating patients with COVID-19 at Carilion Roanoke Memorial and at its community hospitals, but it is not releasing numbers as to how many patients with the virus it has at any of its hospitals and is instead relying on the health department to provide that information.

Morrow said 27 people who live in Roanoke and the surrounding areas are in Roanoke Memorial, 21 are at LewisGale Medical Center and three are at the Salem VA Medical Center.

LewisGale has been treating all of its COVID-19 patients in Salem, while Carilion is also treating them in community hospitals. The New River Health District on Monday reported it had nine residents who tested positive and 10 awaiting results who were in the hospital.

Figures weren’t available for the number of COVID-19 patients in the community hospitals or for the number of residents of other health districts who have been admitted to Roanoke Memorial or LewisGale.

The Virginia Department of Health does not release current hospitalizations by localities but shows a continued upward trend in the southwest region of the state that extends into the coalfields where case counts, hospitalizations and deaths are again surging.

Hospitals are reporting that they have not yet curtailed services and that they have capacity, testing supplies and personal protective equipment.

Weiss said Roanoke Memorial’s emergency department did have to divert EMS traffic for one hour during one morning last week when it had a large number of patients in the ER.

Mike Abbott, Carilion’s senior vice president of operations, said when the hospital becomes more full, the admissions process slows down and the emergency department can become full until patients are discharged, freeing up beds.

“It all goes hand in hand,” he said, and then asked the community to help.

“You just don’t see it spread if people are following the guidelines,” Abbott said.

“Carilion has the bandwidth and capacity for a surge. But one preventable case, one preventable death, that’s too many,” Weiss said. “There is no other way to reframe it. Too many people in our community are contracting the virus, and we do have the power to stop it.”

The message by public health and hospital officials is consistent: Washing hands, wearing masks and keeping physical distances prevents the spread of the disease.

Morrow said she is concerned that case counts will continue to escalate as cold weather settles in and people move indoors to eat in restaurants or socialize at home with family and friends.

“My siblings really want to have a holiday get-together. We haven’t seen each other in months,” she said. “But we will not be gathering as a family this year. It is not safe for multiple family members from multiple households to be spending large amounts of time indoors together. That’s a huge sacrifice for families and individuals, but it is a sacrifice we all need to make to keep each other safe.”

Morrow’s districts have 28 outbreaks with nine of them in long-term care, eight in businesses, seven in group living situations, and one each in a private school, day care, fire station and health care setting.

Dr. Nicole Bissell, director of the New River Health District, on Tuesday reported that her district has nine outbreaks with two in long-term care, four in group living, two in higher education and one in a workplace.

In Franklin County, the treasurer’s office remained closed to the public this week after three employees tested positive for the virus.

So far there have been no outbreaks reported in public schools. O’Dell said the schools have been following the guidelines, especially with distancing, and that it would be hard to bring back more students and continue to do so.

Staff writers Tonia Moxley and Mike Allen contributed to this report.

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