Officials representing Roanoke-area hospitals and emergency services agencies came together Thursday to encourage the community to do its part to combat the latest COVID-19 surge.
During a press conference at the Berglund Center, they offered three actions community members could take to assist in their response to COVID-19 and ease the burden on frontline workers:
Seek the appropriate level of care, meaning individuals should go to a primary care physician, urgent care or retail pharmacy if they simply need a COVID-19 test or have an illness or injury that is not life-threatening.
Continue taking precautions, such as wearing a mask and social distancing.
As a seven-hospital system with a level-one trauma center, Carilion Clinic is used to being busy, said Dr. Patrice Weiss, executive vice president and chief medical officer. But this is a new kind of busy.
“What is notable about this moment in time, however, is the amount of preventable hospitalizations that require quite frankly an inordinate amount of resources,” she said.
Since July, Weiss said, Carilion has admitted 830 patients due to COVID-19, more than 80% of whom had not yet received one vaccination.
“It’s our job to take care of all of those who are sick, no matter the reason. And we will continue to do so,” she said. “Still, it truly does break our heart to see patients who are suffering when they don’t need to be suffering.”
As an obstetrician, Weiss said she continues to see pregnant, unvaccinated patients with COVID-19. Weiss said she understands the fears pregnant women and their families have, but urged them to reach out to their doctors for more information and to learn about the science behind the vaccine.
The hospitalization of COVID-19 patients also affects the ability of medical providers to treat other patients, Weiss said, many of whom delayed care during the pandemic.
With high patient volumes, hospitals in the region have recently needed to utilize “diversion,” a temporary measure in which EMS crews take incoming patients to the nearest emergency room not on diversion, allowing those that are very busy time to “decompress.”
However, officials stressed that if another hospital is unable to take the patient or is too far away, or if multiple hospitals are on diversion, patients are taken to the closest, most appropriate hospital, no matter its diversion status.
Salem Fire-EMS Chief John Prillaman, who spoke on behalf of the region’s first responders, urged people to call 911 or go to the emergency room only for critical illnesses and injuries.
An EMS agency will never refuse service, he said, but it’s important to make sure medical resources are available to “patients who could be experiencing a true emergency.”
Prillaman said diversions might result in EMS crews having to take patients to a hospital across town, adding time to the trip and putting a strain on their resources as well. He said agencies have been dealing with diversions more in the last month or so.
Dr. Carnell Cooper, chief medical officer for LewisGale Regional Health System, said frontline workers are “growing weary” as they continue to battle COVID-19. He spoke of how difficult it is to hear patients express regret about declining to be vaccinated as they take their last breaths.
“It is our calling and our privilege to care for patients during these very challenging times,” he said. “But it’s also our duty and our responsibility to emphasize the tools that are available to take care of our community. The most important tool we have in this pandemic is the vaccine.”
In some parts of the country, hospitals have been forced to ration care. While that hasn’t happened in Southwest Virginia, Cooper said, providers want to be sure they avoid doing so.
Dr. Cynthia Morrow, director of the Roanoke City and Alleghany Health Districts, said it’s important to continue encouraging people to get vaccinated and address any concerns those hesitant to receive the jab may have.
“We’re never going to give up on people,” she said. “We’re going to keep doing whatever we can to try to understand where people are, meet them where they are and try to address any concerns that they have.”
Morrow said she’s hopeful the mandate that businesses with more than 100 employees require vaccination or regular testing will help to increase vaccination rates.
“We know that, for example, we have extremely high vaccination rates for mumps, measles and rubella in large part because our schools require them,” she said. “So we know that policies that are made to protect the public’s health can really do just that: they can protect the public’s health.”
Numerous officials called on community members to do their part by getting vaccinated.
“We really need your help. Please get vaccinated if you haven’t already done so,” Morrow said. “While no vaccine is 100% effective, we know this vaccine is safe and it works.”