When hospital officials asked Laurens Mayor Nathan Senn what city facilities could house stretchers and be used to hold people for an overflowing hospital system, the situation barely felt real for him.
“As far as I can tell, I might be the only mayor in Laurens to have declared a state of emergency,” he said. “The reality has hit home that this is not a fear of what might be, it’s what’s happening.”
Hospitals are full, burgeoning with patients sick with COVID-19. Prisma Health Laurens County Hospital is among the Upstate medical facilities with no room to spare, which is what prompted Senn to publish a video of him talking about the situation, pleading with his constituents to be responsible custodians of their health.
When he made his first video about the crisis in spring 2020, Laurens had no reported infections and only five people had died of COVID statewide. Now, there’s been 5,217 deaths, according to the latest date from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control.
“The grave news I must share with you today is that what we feared has now happened,” Senn said in his video published Wednesday. “Right now, all Prisma Health hospitals in the Upstate are at capacity, including Laurens Hospital. The third floor of our hospital has been converted to a surge area for COVID patients from our area and from other Prisma facilities across the Upstate.”
That conversion added 29 beds, but that’s not enough to meet demand. Extra stretchers have been ordered, and the hospital is looking into other community facilities to house patients.
The National Guard was called in to provide medics to help support the sick. Community family doctors are pitching in.
“We are now, or will very soon be, at the point where hospital physicians will have to prioritize patients and determine who receives treatment and who does not,” Senn said. “People will have delayed care because of the overwhelming situation which could have devastating consequences to your neighbors and to you. Now it is time to break the glass. I am sounding the alarm. This is not a drill.”
On Friday, DHEC announced 78 new cases in Laurens County, only one shy of matching the county’s Christmas Day record for most cases in a single day. In Greenwood County, Friday’s data showed 155 new cases, a new high. In Abbeville, 15 of the 18 total beds are full, five with COVID patients. A spokesman for Self Regional Medical Center was not able to comment Friday, but DHEC showed Greenwood County as having only three beds available. Of 203 hospitalized patients in Greenwood County, 60 are being treated for COVID-19.
Senn said the pandemic brings to mind the sacrifices and loss of life associated with war and said we are at war with the coronavirus. Since February, he said doctors, nurses and frontline medical staff have worked nonstop to treat the sick, and are exhausted. The best-equipped hospitals can’t benefit a community without the staff to work in them.
“We have taken their work for granted,” Senn said. “We’ve taken the guarantee that there will be a hospital with a bed waiting for us if we need it for granted. Now we must accept the sobering reality that those guarantees are not absolute. We are maxed out, and our frontline health care workers need our help.”
The prescription? The same it has been since the pandemic began, and Senn said we cannot let up now. People must wear masks in public, wash their hands regularly, avoid group gatherings and stay at home when possible.
“I know all of us are tired. We are exhausted of hearing about this virus, and it just seems to go on, and on and on,” he said. “Whereas many of us felt a healthy fear when the first case of infection was announced in this county, now we regularly see 30, 40, 50 or more infections every day, and many have chosen to go about their lives as if there were no danger to any of us.”
He asked people to respect this loss of life by continuing to do what’s needed to stop the spread. With the vaccines being distributed and administered, and end is in sight.
On Friday, DHEC announced that it’s advising hospitals in the state to begin vaccinating admitted patients who are ages 65 and older, as long as they don’t have COVID-19.
“By moving up these patients who are currently admitted in our hospitals we are ensuring that the most vulnerable among us are being vaccinated as quickly as possible,” said Dr. Brannon Traxler, DHEC interim public health director.
The state is continuing its phased rollout of the vaccine, with the current phase 1a including emergency medical staff, frontline health care workers, people in nursing and long-term care facilities and now admitted patients ages 65 and older.
DHEC is still evaluating when to move into phase 1b, which will include all people ages 75 and older, and frontline essential workers. The essential workers group includes firefighters, law enforcement officers, corrections officers, workers in food and agriculture, the U.S. Postal Service, manufacturing, grocery stores, public transit and those working in education, including day care workers.