In the last week, Mary Washington Healthcare has treated more COVID-19 patients in its intensive care units than at any other point during the 18-month pandemic, forcing the health care system to postpone for at least two weeks some surgeries for people with cancer or heart-related issues.
“These are not elective surgeries you want to delay,” Dr. Christopher Newman, chief medical officer of the health care system, said during a virtual town hall meeting on Wednesday.
But he and Chief Executive Officer Dr. Mike McDermott stressed that Mary Washington Hospital and Stafford Hospital are at capacity—as are other facilities across Virginia and the nation. The pressure of having so many sick people hospitalized at one time, coupled with the fact there’s nowhere else in the region to transfer patients because “there is not that capacity” anywhere, according to Newman, has forced a temporary delay in other procedures not related to COVID-19.
In addition, there’s an ongoing shortage of nurses and other clinical staff—an issue that was at work before the pandemic. Those who have continued to treat patients month after month are suffering as well, MWHC officials said.
“The unnecessary deaths we are seeing from unvaccinated individuals on a daily basis is also taking its toll and causing moral distress,” Newman said. “It’s a traumatic situation for our caregivers.”
In the beginning of the pandemic, health care workers saw mostly elderly people struggling to catch their breath as their lives came to an end in hospital ICUs. That’s not the case now, Newman said.
“We’re talking about people in their 20s, 30s and 40s in our intensive care units who are dying, requiring high levels of care, and very ill,” he said. “All these things are adding a strain to the entire health care system throughout the entire state.”
Eileen Dohmann, chief nursing officer of MWHC, agreed “this is the hardest part of the whole pandemic we’ve been through” and that the ongoing “slog” has impacted caregivers at all levels.
“It’s hard to feel like you’re making progress when it just keeps coming at you and you just don’t feel like there’s an end in sight,” she said.
All three stated unequivocally that unvaccinated people for causing an undue—and totally avoidable—strain on their health care system. As of Tuesday, the majority of hospitalized patients at Mary Washington Hospital and Stafford Hospital, including all 12 people in ICUs and all five on ventilators, were not vaccinated, according to MWHC.
Its graphic on hospitalized patients also showed more sick people under 65 than over 65. Twenty-one of the 30 older people had been vaccinated, but all 38 of the younger group had not.
“Unvaccinated individuals in our community are creating this, this bottleneck, and preventing all of us from having access to health care or the capacity to access health care,” Newman said.
During the virtual town hall, listeners posted questions for the panel to address, and one person asked why MWHC is firing people if the system is so overwhelmed. In July, MWHC mandated that all associates would have to be vaccinated by Oct. 31 to keep their jobs.
McDermott responded that MWHC’s vaccine policy—for COVID-19 as well as other infections, including the flu—“is centered around safety and we will not sacrifice that safety for any reason.” He said those who might choose to leave instead of getting vaccinated probably represent about 1 percent of the total staff.
MWHC has almost 5,000 employees and more than 700 medical providers in its two hospitals, a third stand-alone emergency room at Lee’s Hill and more than 40 outpatient facilities throughout the region. If 1 percent of associates left over the mandate, that would be 50 workers.
Also during the town hall, McDermott appealed to nurses and health care providers who may have taken “a pause in their career during the pandemic” to come back to work. As the world enters its third winter of the global crisis, the CEO asked health care workers to “come on and join our team” to help patients “in our community at the time of their greatest need.”
Another indication of MWHC’s stretched staff is the announcement it won’t bring back its vaccination clinic at the Fick Conference Center to provide booster shots. When the clinic was in place, vaccines were limited and the health care system was one of the few that had them, Newman said. These days, the free vaccines are readily available at most drugstores.
Mary Washington Healthcare also has put into place a field hospital it established in the first months of the pandemic. In 2020, the health care system carved out space in the Mary Washington Hospital parking garage, should there come a time when there were more patients than the facility could handle.
Mary Washington has been using the space, not for hospitalized patients, but for those with COVID-19 who face a high risk of severe illness. People who need monoclonal antibodies, a treatment that stimulates a person’s immune system to attack the virus, are getting infusions in the “field hospital,” Newman said.
Mary Washington Healthcare was one of the first in Virginia to use the treatments last year, and the two hospitals are giving about 150 infusions a week, Newman said. Reports circulated last week that there was a shortage across the state and nation because of growing demand.
McDermott and Newman stressed that the monoclonal antibodies treatment is not a substitute for a vaccination. The infusion is expensive and includes its own set of risks, they said, and it requires the work of additional health care providers.
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425