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Fredericksburg-area hospitals seeing 'alarming' increase in COVID-19 patients
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Fredericksburg-area hospitals seeing 'alarming' increase in COVID-19 patients

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Fredericksburg-area hospitals treated more COVID-19 patients last week than any time during the pandemic, prompting health care officials to join others across the state and nation in imploring people to stay home this Thanksgiving.

“It is too dangerous,” Dr. Mike McDermott, president and CEO of Mary Washington Healthcare said about traditional gatherings. “I’m asking everybody to reconsider those plans, please. Your life depends on it, the life of one of your loved ones is going to end up depending on that.”

Dr. Denise Bonds, acting director of the Rappahannock Area Health District, regretted the loss of “treasured Thanksgiving traditions” this year, but chose to look at the bigger picture.

“It is better to have small gatherings now than large gatherings of patients in our ICUs in a few weeks,” she said.

Mary Washington Hospital has treated the bulk of COVID-19 patients since March. Including Stafford Hospital, it’s averaged about 20 patients with the virus per day—and never had more than 30 people hospitalized with the respiratory illness, even at the former peaks during the spring and summer.

Right before Halloween, there were only 15 COVID-19 patients in the two facilities, McDermott said.

Then, the calendar switched to November, and “it’s been an absolutely relentless steady uptick every day, and we’re knocking on the door of 40 patients,” McDermott said.

The two hospitals had 39 COVID-19 patients on Thursday and 38 on Friday. Along with other people hospitalized this time of year—some with chronic conditions that weren’t addressed earlier because people were afraid to go to the hospital—MWHC’s facilities are at capacity, McDermott said.

At Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center, health-care workers are seeing more cases, but they’re not extreme enough to warrant hospitalization, said CEO David McKnight. Instead, people show up with symptoms that suggest a sinus infection—sore throats and headache—and are surprised to learn they have COVID-19.

Their cases may not make them any sicker than if they had a sinus infection, “but the problem is, they’re carrying the virus,” McKnight said.

There’s also the notion that only elderly patients who get COVID-19 end up in the hospital, said Lisa Henry, MWHC’s marketing director. Statistics say otherwise.

Elderly patients do suffer the most fatalities from the respiratory illness. Since the pandemic began, there have been 96 deaths from COVID-19 in the local health district, which includes Fredericksburg and the counties of Caroline, King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford.

Of those fatalities, 84 were age 60 and over.

But hospitalizations are spread out among all age groups. Since March, 475 residents in the local health district have needed hospital care for their virus symptoms. Forty-six percent of them—or 221 people—were under 50. The total included eight children and teenagers, 26 people in their 20s and 35 people in their 30s, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

Just as in the spring, when officials talked regularly about “flattening the curve” to keep down the number of people hospitalized, last week’s rising patient numbers are causing health care officials to issue alerts.

“The trajectory of the curve is so alarming right now,” McDermott said, stressing steps everyone can take for the safety of all. That includes foregoing Thanksgiving dinner with extended family members, wearing masks when in public and keeping distance from others.

“Do it for these health-care workers who are showing up to work every day to make peoples’ health better,” McDermott said.

Thinking about their safety—and what would happen if a cluster of them got infected—tends to keep McKnight awake at night. Reports have highlighted a nationwide shortage of nurses in the wake of the pandemic as older nurses have chosen early retirement and younger ones have opted for other careers or had to stay home with school-age children.

Because they’re on the front lines of the pandemic with patients isolated from loved ones in their final hours, nurses have dealt with death, burnout and tolls on their mental health, according to national reports.

Starting in September, HCA Healthcare’s Capital Division—of which Spotsylvania Regional is a part—launched a campaign to hire 500 registered nurses in three months. The campaign has been a success, McKnight said, but rising COVID-19 case counts across the region and state, nation and world, give him pause.

“When the entire country starts to see the squeeze, that starts to put a lot of pressure on nursing sources and bedside sources,” he said. “Everybody’s going to be needing all those nurses at the same time, and what if they get sick?”

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

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