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COVID-19 unit reopens at Saint Francis due to rise in cases

Hospitalist Gretchen Price, Clinical Pharmacist Stuart Greaser and Saint Francis President and CEO Maryann Reese urge COVID-19 vaccinations as cases rise in area. Photo by Jay Forness

Saint Francis Medical Center reopened its COVID Care Unit late last week due to an increase in COVID-positive admissions to the hospital. The hospital had previously closed its COVID-19 unit in March as vaccinations were being administered and local cases went down.

Cape Girardeau County has seen a significant increase in COVID-19 cases over the past few weeks, going from 40 active cases on July 21 to 320 active cases last week.

In addition, the Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center has reported four COVID-19 deaths since July 21. Before the latest surge, the last COVID-19 death in the county was reported in April.

Saint Francis Healthcare System President and CEO Maryann Reese announced on Thursday that they were preparing to reopen the COVID-19 unit. “Unfortunately, what we’re seeing is younger patients, anywhere from in their 20s to their 50s, and I would say 99% of them are unvaccinated,” Reese said.

“There are many facilities outside of our state trying to send us patients and we are declining those patients right now because we don’t have the resources to care for them,” Reese said, adding that they currently have the resources to only care for patients that come from the local community.

Reese said they are currently able to take care of the patients they have, but is not sure what they will do if they need to serve more than 70 COVID-19 patients at one time.

“I’m very worried that we’re not going to be able to take care of the patients that we serve,” Reese said. “Springfield has over 300 COVID patients. We are watching the migration of COVID and the Delta variant continue to come to us. We can’t take care of 300 COVID patients between the two hospitals here. We need your help – please get vaccinated.”

The COVID-19 unit has a total of 50 beds currently and can expand to add 20 additional beds. As of Thursday, Saint Francis had 39 COVID patients admitted to the hospital and 21 ventilators in use.

Lisa Newcomer, who leads the hospital’s respiratory care department, said the hospital is also asking the state for an additional 10 ventilators.

“What we’re seeing is that the patients who come into our doors and are COVID positive – about half of them are going on a ventilator,” Newcomer said, adding that the oxygen needs are greater than they saw last fall.

Reese said the hospital has done testing for the Delta variant in patients, which have come back positive. She added that the variant is stronger, faster acting and can make patients sicker than they’ve seen before with COVID-19 patients.

“We’re seeing patients who are dying and they’re young-er,” Reese said. “I can tell you stories about mothers and young fathers that aren’t going home and are leaving young children without parents.”

Dr. Gretchen Price, a critical care hospitalist who has worked with COVID-19 patients since the start of the pandemic, also urged for people to get a vaccine. She said that she no longer fears getting the virus due to being vaccinated and added that her two parents recently had mild cases of COVID-19 despite being considered high risk because they were vaccinated.

“We responded very well to COVID last year,” Price said. “It was challenging and it was hard, but we were able to get through and close the COVID unit. It was such a huge relief to be closing those doors and I prayed we never went open up again. Unfortunately we are now and the sad part now is we don’t have to be in this situation.”

Price said she has lost more patients in the last year than she did when she was doing hospice service. She said it has been hard to see people be intubated and die from COVID-19, especially as vaccines are readily available and those she treats are younger.

“Before I was telling them to fight for their grandkids,” Price said. “Now I’m telling them to fight so they can get home to their 3-month-old or for them to fight so they can get through college. That is a really sad place to be for a disease that is at the place where we can control it.”

Price said she is now worried about the hospital having to ration care or decline a ventilator if the rise in cases and hospitalizations continue due to the Delta variant. Infectious disease pharmacist Dr. Stuart Greaser said the current estimates are that more than 90 percent of current COVID-19 cases in the nation are the Delta variant.

“What what we found with the Delta variant is that it has higher amounts of virus, which leaves it to be more transmissible and could be associated with more severe disease and I think we’re probably seeing some of that,” Greaser said. “People who get it get sick quicker, so we’re seeing people who need to be ventilated within the first week to 10 days, whereas before it was later.”

Greaser urged those who feel sick to get to their doctor as quickly as possible so they can get the care they need. Saint Francis currently offers COVID-19 monoclonal antibody infusions for those who contract COVID-19 and are high risk. Greaser asked those who contract COVID-19 to see if they qualify for the infusions within the first 10 days of having symptoms. “The sooner we give it the better,” he said. “It’s more effective when we give it within a week, typically.”

Almost 300 patients have received the antibody infusions since December 2020.

“We feel like it really does make a difference,” Greaser said. “We want to make sure that our community knows that we’re doing it so we can hopefully prevent people from coming to the hospital.”

Reese added that hospital staff are there to help those who become sick due to COVID-19, as well as those suffering from other illnesses and diseases, but asked for the community to “help us help you” by getting vaccinated. Those interested in getting vaccinated are asked to call 573-381-5958 or contact a local health department or pharmacy.

“I would say it’s really sad and heartbreaking when someone has been putting it off, put on a ventilator and then they’re asking for the vaccine,” Reese said. “That is too late. We need you to get the vaccine before you need a ventilator.”

Jay Forness covers education, county government and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Jackson for the past four years. He can be reached at cbjedit@socket.net.

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