Acceleration of the coronavirus’ spread from the holidays has raised red flags among Lynchburg-area health professionals, as more than 100 COVID-19 patients have been reliably occupying about a third of local hospital beds.
Centra Health CEO Dr. Andy Mueller said at a Thursday news conference the provider’s coronavirus numbers have been “incredibly dramatic and something that I didn’t think that we would honestly ever get to.”
Though Centra’s health system has been able to bend to accommodate fluctuating levels of patients whose symptoms are severe enough to require care, he said “we’re starting to get close to the breaking point.”
“I don’t want us to end up being like the folks in Southern California, who are having to make difficult decisions about who gets care and doesn’t,” he said. “But we’re not that far away from that here, as hard as it is to say that.”
Dr. Chris Lewis, Centra’s vice president of medical affairs, characterized the stream of patients needing care as “unrelenting.”
As of Thursday, Lynchburg General Hospital was treating 105 COVID-19 patients — 21 of them in an ICU setting and 19 of those 21 on ventilators, Lewis said. Soon after Christmas, the hospital saw up to 114 COVID-19 patients and has dedicated 128 beds, or 37% of its capacity, to the disease.
In the past two weeks, 33 more patients with COVID-19 have died at LGH, bringing that total to 183 deaths.
The hospital’s entire oncology, pulmonary and pediatric units, as well as part of its surgical floor, have all been dedicated to those patients as demand has increased. Certain patients have been redirected to other facilities like Centra’s Bedford Memorial Hospital or Southside Community Hospital for care.
Most recently, Lewis said, the hospital flipped the remainder of the surgical floor, along with the nine-bed surgical trauma ICU unit, to be fully dedicated to COVID-19. A modular building devoted to triaging potential COVID-19 patients coming to the ER is up and running, and a section of Virginia Baptist Hospital has been converted to accommodate patients in long-term care facilities who’ve largely recovered from the disease but can’t quite return.
Mueller said the provider is addressing surgeries on a case-by-case basis, trying to postpone any that compete for resources allocated to those patients or any that could wait, while continuing with urgent procedures.
Besides the bed capacity needed to deal with the influx of patients — likely brought on as a delayed effect of Thanksgiving gatherings, Mueller said — more is needed of a thinly stretched staff that’s needing to pick up shifts left and right.
As of Thursday, Lewis said 354 of Centra’s 8,100 staffers are on unpaid furlough because of infection or exposure to the virus.
“That puts added strain on the system,” he said. “These are challenges that we’re facing — we’ve been facing them, they’re getting harder and we predict they will be getting harder yet over the next several weeks.”
On top of care for those patients, there’s also need for skilled hands to work Centra’s vaccine clinic and roll out preventative care.
Vaccinations fan out to health care workers, nursing homes
Centra first administered vaccinations to the highest priority care providers — front line workers — on Dec. 16. Since then, Lewis said the health system has worked up to administering more than 400 doses per day at various stations, which is about the most they can manage.
Those frontline health workers have started to receive the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, required for maximum efficiency of immunization, he said, and those second doses will continue to roll out quickly. Statewide, numbers from the Virginia Department of Health indicate 3,891 people had been fully vaccinated as of Thursday.
Centra has administered 4,410 doses of the vaccine as of late Wednesday, according to Lewis. Most of those doses have gone to its own staff, and the provider has started offering the vaccine to high-risk healthcare personnel at other practices. None of the doses have caused severe reactions, Lewis said, and any minor reactions have been treated with over-the-counter medications.
Michael Elliott, Centra’s senior vice president and chief operations officer, said he’s been working with officials with the Central Virginia Health District within VDH for plans to vaccinate other essential workers and residents age 75 and older as part of the next phase.
Lynchburg Fire Chief Greg Wormser said he was able to start offering his first responder staff vaccination opportunities soon after Centra had immunized its first round of caregivers.
So far, he estimated around 60 department employees, or about a third of its total roster, have received their first dose and that process is ongoing. Most of those staff members have been going to Centra for immunization, but others have received it at the Lynchburg office of the Virginia Department of Health.
Several patient-facing staff members at Johnson Health Center have received the vaccine through Centra, according to Johnson Health CEO Gary Campbell, and others are “itching” to get it.
Though he initially wasn’t anticipating distribution of the vaccine to reach the nonprofit provider until around March or April, he said momentum from the state — given Gov. Ralph Northam’s announcement Wednesday his administration plans to speed up vaccine distribution — seems to be picking up and a Thursday evening update from Central Virginia Health District officials was expected to provide more of a precise timeline for local rollout.
Campbell said Johnson Health has submitted the applicable paperwork to get the vaccine.
“It’s not just saying, ‘Oh, send them on;’ you have to go through and make sure you have the physical capability to do these things,” while maintaining patient care, he said. “… It’s a very busy time for any health care provider right now.”
Johnson Health isn’t equipped to receive the Pfizer vaccine, which must be stored in an ultra-cold freezer, but could process and distribute the Moderna vaccine in the future, he said.
“This thing continues to evolve and change rapidly and we’re just trying to keep up with it,” he said.
The Free Clinic of Central Virginia did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
Vaccinations for workers and residents of long-term care facilities, the other component of Virginia’s first phase of vaccination rollouts, have started locally as well. That distribution is being handled by CVS and Walgreens as part of a contract with the federal government.
Residents and staff at all four of the assisted living facilities Centra owns have been given the opportunity for a vaccine, Lewis said.
As of Thursday, a total of 4,926 vaccine doses had been administered across the Central Virginia Health District, comprised of Lynchburg and the counties of Amherst, Appomattox, Bedford and Campbell.