Colorado Hospital Deals With New Surge of COVID-19 Cases

Dr. Thomas Tobin

Title: Chief medical officer and board-certified emergency medicine physician at Community Hospital

Location: Grand Junction, Colorado

While COVID-19 infection rates in much of the U.S. are decreasing thanks to vaccines, health care workers at Community Hospital are dealing with a fresh wave of infections. Vaccination rates in Mesa County, Colorado, are lower than they are in many parts of the country; in late June, only 39% of the county’s population was fully vaccinated, and 45% had received at least one shot.

As told to Ruben Castaneda, as part of U.S. News & World Report’s “One Pandemic Question” series. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What’s it like to lead a hospital in a region where vaccination rates are low?

It poses additional challenges to be in this situation when we now know that COVID-19 is, to a certain extent, a preventable disease.

We were breathing a sigh of relief when our numbers went down last spring, in March and April. We got nervous when we saw the numbers going up in the last six to eight weeks, and now we’re back up to the peak we had in November and December of 2020. That’s when we hit our highest numbers of COVID-19 infections.

Today, half of the beds in our intensive care unit are typically occupied by COVID patients, and a third of those patients are usually on ventilators. We have a 12-bed ICU, so we usually have about six COVID patients in there at a given time, and two or three of them are on ventilators. Our medical-surgical floor has 24 beds, and about a quarter of those beds are occupied by COVID patients.

[Read: Unsung Heroes Fight the COVID-19 Pandemic.]

The current wave is taking a big toll. It’s disappointing and exhausting to have such a low vaccination rate. I also work in the emergency department as an emergency medicine physician. I was down there recently and we had multiple new COVID patients — one in particular who was adamant that he didn’t have the disease. He didn’t believe in COVID or in the vaccine. Yet he was sick and was admitted to the hospital and so was one of his family members.

I’ve dealt with denials of a diagnosis before. Nobody wants to be diagnosed with a terrible illness. What’s different in this circumstance is that COVID and the vaccine have been fully politicized and, in some people’s perception, is not just a medical issue. This has added another layer to the challenges we face.

The mental health of my team is strained but we support each other. We empathize with each other and commiserate about the challenges we all face with COVID-19. We understand and appreciate that every patient who comes into the hospital needs our help. We see the desperation in their eyes, which by nature, causes our empathy and compassion to turn to them and provide the very best care possible.

[Read: Mother-Daughter Nurse Team Both Treating Coronavirus Pandemic.]

The destruction that this virus continues to cause is now preventable with a vaccine. That is the most challenging aspect we now face as health care providers. We are coping with ongoing fatigue, both mentally and physically. The reality is: There is no time to slow down and take a break, we must continue to press on and care for those who need us most during this unprecedented global pandemic.

I talk to physician friends across the country, the ones who work in hospitals in areas with high vaccination rates. They now have zero or very few COVID patients. If they’re seeing COVID patients, it’s one patient here, one patient there. Meanwhile, here in Grand Junction, there are times when half of the patients in the emergency department are there for COVID.

We can’t prevent 100% of infections with the vaccine but we can cut hospitalizations way, way down. The chances of you becoming hospitalized or severely ill once you are vaccinated is in the low single digits, percentage-wise.

[See: Fear, Courage, Grit: Meet More Than 50 ‘Hospital Heroes’ in Pictures.]

There will be more people who will become infected and we will continue to take care of them. But at a certain point, it’s like, ‘Come on, please help us.’

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This content was republished with permission from CNN.

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