Although COVID-19 case numbers seem to be waning, health officials are staying ready to respond to another surge while hoping to see a continued downward trend.
Self Regional Medical Center’s emergency room saw some of its busiest days of the year two weeks ago. Dr. Matthew Logan, chief medical officer, said on one day there were about 16 people in the emergency room waiting for one of its 32 beds to free up.
Not all patients held awaiting a bed are admitted with COVID-19, but the influx of COVID patients has forced the hospital to improvise throughout the pandemic to accommodate the increase in people who need care. Following the surge in cases after winter holidays and New Year’s Eve celebrations in 2020, the hospital was housing patients on alternative floors and converting beds in other wings of the hospital to house intensive care patients.
Now, hospital staff are using pain management rooms as overflow for emergency patients, and sometimes housing ICU patients in the emergency wing. Logan said they’re still getting the same quality of care, and ICU doctors are still making their rounds to these patients to check on them regularly.
A large, air-conditioned tent behind one of the hospital’s buildings remains mostly empty. Logan said staff set up the tent as a makeshift overflow area for ICU patients, but getting the necessary equipment down to the tents was more work than it was worth.
“We found logistically it was very hard to be able to care for people out there,” he said.
The tent is still out there just in case it’s needed, but Logan said admissions have slowed. By the end of Wednesday, he said hospital staff had the flow of patients under control and were finding beds for every patient that needed one.
In mid-September, the Self Regional Healthcare Board of Trustees announced Logan would become the hospital’s president and CEO starting Dec. 21, when current President and CEO Jim Pfeiffer retires. Logan said this is an exciting time, and he’s excited to continue the great work done by Pfeiffer during his tenure.
“The ultimate goal is to make Self Regional the best place to get care and the best place to give care,” he said. “Greenwood is my home and I love this community. ... I think bringing a clinician’s perspective, a physician’s perspective into the CEO role, it helps to see decisions through the patients’ eyes.”
Despite a statewide trend of daily case numbers relaxing, Department of Health and Environmental Control Assistant State Epidemiologist Dr. Jane Kelly said health officials are still worried. The dip in case numbers is partly because of the slow increase of vaccinations and mitigation measures, but the case surge sparked by the delta variant still hasn’t truly ended.
“We are all certainly concerned that with the upcoming winter holidays people may travel, people may be getting together in indoor settings with other individuals who are not household members,” she said, “and if people are not vaccinated, that is certainly an additional risk.”
Vaccinations saw a bit of an uptick recently, Logan said, with more than 1,300 doses administered last week — a mix of third-shot boosters for people who had the Pfizer vaccine and first-time doses. He said the hospital’s biggest demand for COVID testing was about three weeks ago, but requests for tests have seemed to slow alongside new cases.
Logan said he’s still encouraging people to get vaccinated, and said the evidence still shows the available vaccines are safe and effective at preventing serious illness from COVID-19.
“What we have seen at Self Regional is the same at every hospital around the country,” he said. “The people who get the sickest with COVID are the ones who are not vaccinated.”
In a recent analysis of vaccination status among COVID patients, DHEC found that among the nearly 32,000 people who contracted COVID-19 in September and disclosed their vaccination status to state officials, more than 85% of them were not fully vaccinated. Among those hospitalized, 72.1% weren’t fully vaccinated, Kelly said.
“Vaccination is a personal choice, but the COVID-19 vaccines that are available today are incredibly effective and safe,” she said. “Because we know how easily this virus spreads between people, requiring employees who are in close contact with each other or the public to get their shots is the most effective action an employer can take to protect their workforce and their customers.”
Next week, the FDA is reviewing the emergency authorization application for offering a booster shot of the Moderna vaccine, as well as a second dose of the Janssen vaccine, Kelly said. Preliminary unpublished data on their efficacy looks good, she said, and puts the Janssen vaccine’s effective rate on par with the two mRNA vaccines. She said the FDA is also set to review Pfizer’s application to allow vaccines for children ages 5-11.