With virus cases surging again, state officials asked residents not to go to emergency rooms for more routine issues and to go only if necessary.

PRINCETON — Princeton Community Hospital has no ICU beds available because of the increase in COVID-related patients, and the problem is being experienced all around the state.

Karen Bowling, PCH President and CEO, said Tuesday when patients are admitted to the hospital and need to be in an ICU unit, they will stay in the Emergency Department until a bed becomes available at PCH or elsewhere in the state.

“All of the ICUs in our geographic area and across the state of West Virginia and in our surrounding states are full,” she said. “The challenge is, when people need a higher level of care, there is no place to send them … All of the hospitals are in the same situation.”

Bowling said patients can get an ICU bed when there is a recovery, enough improvement to leave ICU or death.

It is a problem for emergency rooms across the state, she said, and everyone is doing the best they can to care for all patients including those who waiting for an ICU bed.

Bowling also said it is crucial now for people not to visit the Emergency Department for minor issues or medical problems that can be handled elsewhere.

“Our emergency rooms are not the place to come unless you are really sick,” she said.

So far, there is no end in sight for the current surge.

“I believe as long as we are in this surge it is going to be the ongoing situation,” she said, adding that she expects the numbers related to COVID to keep rising.

The DHHR (Department of Health and Human Resources) COVID dashboard today shows 247 confirmed COVID cases in ICUs around the state, a pandemic record, as well as 132 on ventilators, also a record number.

Bowling said as the positive cases rise so do the hospitalizations, patients who need ICU care, patients on ventilators, and then the deaths that can inevitably follow.

Several factors are also involved in the coming weeks that may mean the situation could worsen.

Bowling said that about 20 percent of the COVID patients around the country are kids and “we are seeing sicker kids. That is the scary part.”

The flu season and people not wearing masks are factors as well as the continued surge that has not yet peaked.

“Everybody is on high alert, understanding there is a multitude of things that are going on that can be a perfect storm for this continued stressing of our health care system,” she said. “That worries us, it worries me. It keeps me up at night.”

Bowling said the Delta variant cases rise far faster than the coronavirus or other variants. “It accelerates quickly.”

A lack of vaccinations exacerbates the problems.

The older population is now well vaccinated, she said, at more than 85 percent. However, that is not the case with 50 and younger.

“We are shocked,” she said of the younger unvaccinated people now being admitted. “We see a 36-year-old, we see a 48-year-old, we see a 52-year-old, many of whom have to go on a ventilator. And the prognosis once you are on a ventilator is not very good with COVID.”

Vaccinations are crucial to preventing this as well the spread and more variants.

“Our only tool to fight this is vaccination and people appropriately wearing a mask,” she said. “If we don’t do this, eventually you do top out, but before you get there we are going to see so many more people die and we are going to see our hospital resources just be tapped and tapped and tapped.”

In the meantime, patients who come to PCH and need care will be taken care of, she said, thanks to a dedicated staff who are “heroes” as they come in and work extra hours and do everything they can to make sure all patients are treated.

“We are managing, we are doing the best we can,” she said. “But we need the community to help us. The best way they can help us is to get vaccinated and wear a mask.”

Bowling said there is a degree of prevention in wearing a mask and it is “pretty good” at keeping people who have it from spreading it.

Although the current COVID surge is rivaling and even surpassing the numbers during the January surge, no mask or other mitigation mandates are in place on a statewide level.

“I don’t understand that,” she said, but she has been “hopeful” school boards will have mask mandates because of the increased cases in kids. “I can’t speak to why they don’t do it on a statewide level.”

“If you look strictly at the facts, you should wear a mask in school,” she said, with kids under 12, who cannot yet get vaccinated, the biggest concern. “These kids are at risk. And you have a lot of 12 to 17-year-olds who have not been vaccinated.”

Bowling said wearing masks in schools can be a “critical factor” in helping decrease transmission of the virus. “Wear a mask. What does it hurt?” She “highly advises” anyone at risk (underlying medical issues) to wear a mask and not go into crowds.

“Surround yourself with people who are vaccinated.”

A booster shot is also “very important, very critical,” she said, and the hospital will be working with the Mercer County Health Department to be ready to get the boosters out when the federal government gives the approval, which is right now scheduled for Sept. 20.

The boosters increase everyone’s immunity as much as possible as the initial vaccines can see effectiveness wane over time.

Bowling also addressed two issues that have been surrounded by misinformation.

Breakthroughs (positive cases among those fully vaccinated) happen, but Bowling said if a person has been fully vaccinated “the likelihood of you being hospitalized or dying is very low,” unless there is a serious underlying medical problem or a lessened immune response from the vaccine in that high risk group.

Bowling said these vaccinations, just like the flu vaccine, were not created to eradicate the virus.

Rather, they prevent hospitalizations and deaths, and they are very effective in doing that.

Another topic of misinformation relates to doctors and hospitals receiving “extra” money from the government if they list COVID as a contributing cause of death (COVID-related) even if it isn’t.

“It does not work that way,” she said. “There are many patients who come in with other diseases and if they happen to have a positive COVID test the death certificate doesn’t change. It still has the cause of death as whatever they came in with. The COVID positive is just another line item on the death certificate because we are required by law to report all COVID positive patients.”

Bowling said in order for it to be a COVID-related death the virus must be at least an indirect cause of the death.

In other words, a person could have a cause of death listed as pneumonia, but would not have died if COVID had not been a factor.

Hospitals and doctors do not get any “extra” money based on the number of COVID-related deaths, she said.

“I get disappointed sometimes that people see things like that differently,” she said. “We are all working so hard, we really are … to try to take care of people in this community. I hope people will see that and recognize that and understand the value of this hospital and these providers and the people who work here.”

Bowling said if anyone happens to see someone who works at PCH, “thank them, because you can’t thank them enough for the work they do each and every day.”

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com

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