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Greenbrier County Health Department Urges Community To Get Vaccinated

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As people continue to get sick and die from the Delta variant of COVID-19, many have decided to remain unvaccinated. As the virus spreads to more and more of Greenbrier County, many medical professionals have faced backlash for telling their patients to get vaccinated, even as the unvaccinated account for nearly all of Greenbrier County’s sick COVID-19 patients.

On Friday, September 3, the Greenbrier County Health Department and County Commission called a press conference. Dr. Bridgett Morrison of the Greenbrier County Health Department and several other speakers called on residents to get vaccinated, wear masks, and recognize that Greenbrier Valley Medical Center, and almost all hospitals in a 300 mile radius are full.

“I come to you today with a desperate plea for our community and for our healthcare workers,” Morrison said. “We have been in the red for weeks and weeks now. … We are strongly asking, encouraging, begging everyone wear masks indoors. We can make this a mandate. I don’t want to do that. We’re begging people. Do the right thing. Greenbrier County is famous for stepping up and doing the right thing for our neighbors. Look at the flood of 2016. We stood up and helped each other. Why can we not do that now?”

Greenbrier County officials come together to “beg” residents to get vaccinated and wear masks while hospitals are full.

The local and personal story of a single 12 hour emergency room shift offers a horrifying look into what medical professionals on the front lines of COVID-19 and the Delta variant are facing.

Dr. Amy Fought, a DO working in the Greenbrier Valley Medical Center (GVMC) Emergency Room, wrote the story of just one of her many shifts during the pandemic. The caseload in West Virginia and Greenbrier County has exploded due to the more contagious Delta variant of the disease and the lifting of mask and public health mandates, such as social distancing requirements.

Since December, the Greenbrier County Health Department has administered vaccine doses to 50.4 percent of the county who are eligible, limiting the possibility of spread to medical workers. However, this means 49.6 percent of people in Greenbrier County have decided against vaccinating themselves.

“We had almost gotten control of this,” Fought said. “It was getting so much better and now it’s so much worse. … The majority of people, probably 99% of the people I have seen, haven’t had their vaccines, don’t wear masks, and continue to go to church, the store, Walmart, the fair, and have parties. … Problem is, whether it’s right or left, people are just gonna believe what they want to believe in. At this point, everybody wants to believe that there is no problem. It’s easier to return [to normal if] there’s not.”

During the Tuesday, August 31, Greater Greenbrier COVID-19 Task Force meeting, Morrison explained that most of the individuals getting sick were unvaccinated. Throughout the pandemic, as the county lost individuals, the department posted the number of deaths and the age and gender of those who just passed, similar to Governor Jim Justice during his press briefings.

The department also included the vaccination status of recently deceased patients in their status updates on social media.

“This fourth wave is awful. … We have been asked to report when we have deaths and asked to report if they are vaccinated or unvaccinated. The reason, obviously, is to encourage more people to get vaccinated. This is a state-wide, even nationwide objective. It is not in any way, shape, or form being insensitive to those who have lost loved ones to this. … In Greenbrier County, at this point, we have had 159 breakthrough cases. To the best of our knowledge, only one of them out of all 159, was fully vaccinated and that particular individual had an extensive medical history.”

By Friday, the only fully vaccinated patient had passed. However, this was due to complications with another condition, rather than from COVID-19 and the Delta variant.

After receiving criticism for the decision on social media from several individuals, including from Greenbrier County Republican Club Chair Ben Anderson, the post was removed.

“I have no issue with the Greenbrier County Health Department, nor with their exceptionally hard working staff,” Anderson later told The West Virginia Daily News. “They truly are the hidden heroes of our area and I am very thankful for their continued efforts to fight against this treacherous pandemic. I also am thankful for the Health Department’s efforts to be as transparent as possible during these difficult times. I simply believe that the vaccination status of the individual deceased should be kept private out of respect for those who have passed and their families. Inadvertently making an example out of those who have died from this terrible disease, setting up their families for potential criticism and ridicule, only adds fuel to an already emotionally charged issue.”

“It’s simply because the people that are dying are unvaccinated,” Morrison said during the Task Force meeting. “… Public health means lives and right now people are dying. That’s as good as I can say. … We are trying our best to keep the public informed. … Everyone is so darn angry. Please give your healthcare providers and your public Health Department a break. Give us a little patience. We’re trying. We’re tired.”

Later, Morrison told The West Virginia Daily News the situation is getting tough for the department.

“We’ve had threats before,” Morrison said. “There are many that are utilizing some of the staff’s pictures and exposing them [in] that way in order to promote their personal agenda. It’s mainly anti-maskers [and] anti-vaxxers. There are a few more vocal than others, and there is no talking with [them] on an educated, informed level. People are still dying and it’s gonna get worse. … The verbal attacks and people just being out right vicious is awful.”

Many in Greenbrier County shared the Fought’s story, echoing Morrison and hoping to convince family and friends to vaccinate. This includes Senate Minority Leader and Greater Greenbrier COVID-19 Task Force Chair Stephen Baldwin.

“This is a local, personal testimony from a doctor at Greenbrier Valley Medical Center. On behalf of a grateful community, thank you for taking care of your patients and our region!”

Shortly after Fought’s post was widely shared, she took it down. Though initially excited to share the full story in the pages of The West Virginia Daily News, she requested it not be printed in full, in part due to worry about community backlash, saying she “would never want to offend anyone in an already tense environment of significantly differing opinions on how to handle a pandemic.”

The post detailed Fought as she progressed through the night, combating a large number of patients, calling over 20 hospitals to find a place for a critical patient, how she cried many tears after each patient they have lost due to COVID or other deaths, how she put off a needed bathroom break for nine hours due to incoming patients, and her reaction to losing a patient. What follows in italics is a revised version of her post, with significant alterations to remove some details.

When I lose patients, that is the hardest part of my job.

I pronounce them dead and walk away. In my mind, I’m telling them I’m sorry I couldn’t save them.

I walk out of [the] room, and suddenly remember I still haven’t gone pee and it’s been over an hour. I really wish I had time to go to the bathroom. What some people don’t realize is [when] healthcare workers sometimes go in the bathroom, the silent tears flow and, just for a moment, we reflect on a life lost. A life that we tried in vain to save. And the emotions flood out. I know sometimes we just can’t save everybody but yet it feels like a defeatist moment. Most people don’t see us as we break down in the break room or in the bathroom. Healthcare workers try to stay stoic for patients and their families, but sometimes we just can’t hold it in anymore.

I start to head to the bathroom when my nurse calls out stating that another patient needs assistance. No time for tears, no time for peeing now. That will have to wait. I’m waiting for scans, waiting for bloodwork.

Time to go see another presumed positive COVID. [I] don all my gear, my gown, my double gloves, my mask, my N-95, my goggles, my helmet – go in and see the patient. Try to breathe shallow so you don’t happen to get COVID. See the patient, come out, try to get everything off without breathing, shedding virus particles. Try to hold my breath so I don’t breathe in any particles as I remove everything.

Wash my hands.

Wash again.

The public push back against vaccination is also a constant for many in the medical field. Fought is no exception.

Seven hours in. … This, the second wave, this is different. I have seen more patients with COVID in [these five days than] I have in the last five months. It breaks my heart for my community.

As a healthcare provider, I’ve tried to talk to people about their vaccines. Some people say I understand but I’m scared and then I try to calm their fears and answer their questions. Some people do not want me to talk about vaccines. Those are the hardest to deal with.

But I care about my patients and I care about my patient’s friends and family. I never meant to be rude, I was just stern.

Fought also points to the lack of room for more patients in hospitals across West Virginia. When she arrived for the ER shift, a critical patient needed to be transferred.

We are a community hospital and very good at what we do, but there are many critical things we have to transfer to the larger hospitals as we don’t have those services. Hours later, I was still making phone calls.

Nine hours into my shift. I have now called the transfer center of these hospitals:

1. Charleston area medical center – no beds
2. Raleigh general – no beds
3. WVU ruby memorial – 5 day wait for bed
4. Roanoke memorial – they can put it on their list. Currently, there’s 11 ahead of them to be admitted from outside facilities. [However], many are going to be admitted in their own emergency room.
5. Cabell Huntington – No beds
6. Camden Clark – no beds
7. UVA – initially left a message, never got called back. Finally got called back. [There are] no beds, likely 48 hours before they even talk to us about it.
8. Wake forest – no beds.
9. Ballard health systems – no beds in any other facilities
10. LewisGale Health system – no beds in any other facilities including Salem, Blacksburg, Richmond (multiple locations there), Spotsylvania, DC/Reston. Literally no beds in any other facilities.
11. Princeton Community Hospital ER on diversion – no beds
12. Mon General Morgantown – no beds
13. Augusta health system – no beds
14. UHC – no beds
15. University of Kentucky – no beds
16. Pikesville – no beds
17. St. Mary’s Medical Center – no beds
18. Virginia Commonwealth University Richmond – no beds
19. Johnston Memorial – no beds
20. Inova Mount Vernon Alexandria – no beds
21. Davis medical – no beds
22. Martha Washington
23. Mary Jefferson – no beds

That is 23 hospitals. I called 23 in a radius of 300 miles.

[Now 10 hours into the shift], luckily we found a place for my patient, now I just have to find transportation. That becomes an issue because it’s so far away. We spend more time on the phone trying to secure transportation. My travel time to the new hospital is just so far away. EMS is stretched thin and of course there’s a storm between us and them that no one is flying. My Charge Nurse tries to call some other places. We try to figure out what we can do to get that patient down the road.

I still haven’t gotten to go pee and now 10 hours into my shift. Take time to do that now as I can’t wait anymore. I guess it’s a good thing that I hadn’t been able to drink anything until now. I did finally drink some fluids. I know a lot of people think that all we do is sit at the desk and drink and laugh and eat and play on the computer. If they could only walk in our shoes. But there’s no time for thinking about this now, I’ll do it later.

She also writes on the sleepless night after.

[I] Get in my car, feeling absolutely devastated for all families who lose loved ones, for families of the patient whose family is sick with COVID. For all my patients, including the traumas or in pain or sick with not COVID, for the patients that tonight was their worst night in their lives, for my nursing staff that’s overwhelmed, for my phlebotomist and my respiratory techs and my radiology techs and my housekeeping staff and my EMTs/EMS, and my security guard, and my registration, and all that I work with and all that are in healthcare.

Defeated, exhausted, dehydrated, emotional, devastated, hopeless, numb. I guess sometimes numb is better than all the other feelings that we go through. I have to drive home still feeling numb. We allow ourselves to feel numb at work to get through some of the bad things. We don’t have time to feel anything sometimes in the ER. We keep up that stoic look. We keep our emotions in check. We don’t have time for being emotional at work.

I start to drive home when the tears start to flow. I have to pull over and sit in a parking lot. The overwhelming heaviness of last night’s ER shift hits me like a brick wall. I lean over my steering wheel and sob and sob and sob and sob. I guess I have time for this now.

Fought explained why she wrote the original post, noting that it was her personal experience, not an official statement from GVMC.

“I just couldn’t fall asleep after such a stressful night. … I had no idea so many people would see this. … I am just shocked and amazed that we even had the State Fair. I know everybody wants to get back to their normal lives but now is not the time.”

Fought offered some advice to anyone looking to prevent the spread of the more dangerous Delta variant of COVID-19:

– “Get vaccinated and wear masks and still social distance.”

– “If it is a minor health issue, go to your primary care provider or urgent care. Don’t get me wrong, obviously if you aren’t sure if it is an ER problem, we will be glad to see you. But if it is something like a very minor urinary tract infection or if you have had a chronic medical issue for eight months and thought you would go get checked out by the ER before seeing your primary care provider, … it would help to see your primary care provider first.”

– “Self quarantine when you get sick. Don’t go to Walmart or church or to visit family or have people at your house. It protects your loved ones and family and strangers. It seems like people would stay home when they are sick, but for some reason there are some people that don’t. I don’t know why.”

[Image]
A Greenbrier County vaccination clinic in March.

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