Even though new COVID-19 cases are showing a slight decline locally as well as across the state and nation, hospitalizations and deaths, which typically lag a few weeks behind new infections, continue to climb.
There have been 25 deaths reported so far this month—an average of almost one a day—in the Rappahannock Area Health District, which includes Fredericksburg and the counties of Caroline, King George, Spotsylvania and Stafford.
The death count has been even more severe in recent days. Since last Monday, Sept. 20, there have been 14 deaths reported: Ten were men and four were women; 13 were white and one was Latino; 11 were age 60-plus and three were in their 30s, 40s or 50s.
For the first time since Jan. 29, the number of people being treated for virus symptoms at local hospitals has topped three digits. As of Tuesday, there were 101 COVID-19 patients in Mary Washington Hospital, Stafford Hospital and Spotsylvania Regional Medical Center, according to the local health district.
Local hospitalizations reached their highest peak during the pandemic in late January, when 121 patients were treated for COVID-19 symptoms.
“Our concern is that our hospitals are quite full,” said Lisa Henry, marketing director of Mary Washington Healthcare, which operates Mary Washington and Stafford hospitals. “We have adequate ventilators and supplies, which is a relief compared to the early months of the pandemic. Now, we are facing significant staff fatigue. The staff is tired in a way that is difficult to put into words.
“In short, I am worried about our staff,” Henry said. “It’s what keeps me up at night.”
Mary Washington Healthcare plans a virtual town hall at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 29, to discuss current trends with COVID-19. The event can be viewed on the health care system’s Facebook page.
In its weekly briefing, the Three Rivers Health District, which includes Westmoreland County, also addressed ongoing stressors, including staff shortages that existed before the pandemic but have worsened in the last 18 months.
“Health care systems remain stressed due to the pandemic surge in the face of staff attrition,” the briefing stated. “Many workers have left the health care industry to retire, change career fields, seek better pay in other jobs and various other reasons.”
To the west of Fredericksburg, one public health worker put her thoughts about the ongoing crisis to paper. April Achter is the population health coordinator for the Rappahannock–Rapidan Health District, which includes Culpeper, Fauquier and Orange counties, among others.
Typically, she wrote, public health is “not exciting at all, because when it works, nothing happens. You drink the water from your tap, enjoy a meal at a local restaurant and pet your vaccinated animals. If we prevent an outbreak, no one knows.”
But the kind of public health interventions that have taken place since COVID-19 appeared on the scene have “somehow become political statements” and they’re “causing many people to remain unprotected” against the virus, she said. “Watching people die from a now vaccine-preventable illness is disheartening.”
Before vaccines were available, Achter, 47, felt the losses from COVID-19, both personally and professionally. She moved to Culpeper in 2006, delivered her son a few months later and came to know an older couple named Bob and Rose Ward.
“My sweet neighbors took me under their wing,” she said about the Wards. “A retired Army drill sergeant and his wife opened their home and their hearts to my little family.”
Rose Ward was the first one in their community to die from COVID-19, followed quickly by her husband, Achter said. Another good friend of Achter’s lost both his parents within 30 days of each other—shortly before his mother could get her scheduled vaccination.
Achter’s uncle died, not from the virus, but of congestive heart failure. He hadn’t been to see his doctor in person because of the ongoing pandemic and the virtual visit didn’t reveal his badly swollen ankles, a sign of his condition.
“Over the last 19 months, one in 500 Americans has died of COVID-19. But numbers, especially big ones, are cold and distant,” Achter stated in her written comments. “These numbers are people—mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives.”
Public health workers have tried to slow the spread, through isolation, quarantine and then vaccination so that health care workers can treat the sick. But they’re tired, and so are public health officials, Achter said. Having booster shots available for those vaccinated may be helpful, she said, “not but nearly as effective as immunizing unvaccinated people.”
Statewide, 75 percent, or 3 of 4, Virginians who are eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine have gotten at least one shot, according to the state health department.
The numbers are lower locally. Of those 12 and older, 63 percent have gotten one shot in the Rappahannock Area Health District; 65 percent in Westmoreland County; and 68 percent in Culpeper, Fauquier and Orange counties.
This month, Mary Washington Healthcare has posted graphics on its Facebook page, showing the number of COVID-19 patients at Mary Washington and Stafford. A “green” stick figure represents someone vaccinated; a “gold” stick figure means unvaccinated.
As of Monday, 64 of the 74 inpatients were unvaccinated. All 14 people in intensive care and all seven on ventilators had not been vaccinated, according to MWHC. In addition, 23 of the 33 patients over 65 were not vaccinated and all 41 of the patients under 65 had not been inoculated, according to the chart.
For the week ending Sept. 18, unvaccinated people in Virginia developed COVID-19 at a rate 15.5 times higher, were hospitalized at a rate 12.4 times higher and died at a rate 36.7 times higher than vaccinated people, according to MWHC.
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425