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30 ARH patients die of COVID in 7 days


Thirty patients in the Appalachian Regional Healthcare system have died from COVID-19 in the past seven days, and the national mortality rate is at least four times higher than in the ARH hospitals, figures from the hospital chain show.

A rolling seven-day count of COVID deaths in the hospital system yesterday shows 30 since September 14. Hospital beds are full, and hospitals are creating temporary intensive care unit space in other departments in order to take care of patients.

At Whitesburg ARH Hospital, Chief Executive Officer Dena Sparkman said four patients were in the emergency room on Tuesday who should have been in ICU, because the ICU was full. Three were COVID patients on ventilators.

“There are no vaccinated people (with COVID) in this hospital,” Sparkman said. “None of these people are vaccinated, I think we’ve had one that was. Nobody on the ventilators has been vaccinated.”

The hospital canceled its annual family night during the Mountain Heritage Festival because of the danger of COVID spreading in large crowds, and because it could not spare the employees to work at the event.

“Every employee we have that would have been a part of that is at the bedside taking care of patients,” she said.

Dr. Fares Khater, infectious disease specialist at Mountain Comprehensive Health Corporation and ARH, said patients who are ill enough to be shipped to larger facilities are instead having to stay where they are because there is no place to send them.

“Right now you can’t (transfer them). You just have to take care of them here,” Khater said.

He said COVID treatment is the same anywhere else, except that Whitesburg does not have an ECMO machine. (An ECMO pumps blood from a patient’s veins through an artificial lung for oxygenation, and then returns it to the body again.)

Sparkman said the situation the worst she has seen.

“I have been quiet about this because I’m a noncontroversial person, but I’m to the point I want to tell everybody to get the vaccine. I’m begging people. Get the vaccine,” Sparkman said.

As of Tuesday, two COVID patients had died at Whitesburg Hospital in the past seven days. Sparkman said during a sevenday period ending September 17, there were four COVID deaths in Whitesburg ARH. She said that doesn’t mean a total of six necessarily, because the two deaths in the other report could have been included in the other statistic, also. But she said the addition of those numbers to the official death toll “takes forever” because the cause of death is vetted so completely before being added to the numbers made public. The official number now is 54, up just three in a month, and up seven in two months because of the delays in reviewing and processing death certificates, Sparkman said.

“Even the numbers the governor gives are in arrears, and I think significantly so,” she said.

She said the only good news is that ARH’s hospital mortality rate for COVID patients is significantly lower than the national average, with 4.4 percent of the patients hospitalized in the ARH system dying. In contrast, Sparkman said the national average ranges from 15 to 30 percent. As of August, COVID was the third leading cause of death in the nation, behind heart disease and cancer.

Like Sparkman, Khater found a bright spot in the fact that more people are coming around to the idea that they must be vaccinated to live.

“I will say we have increased the vaccinations like no time before. A lot of people are listening and getting the vaccination,” Khater said.

As of Tuesday, 51.2 percent of those eligible for the vaccine had been fully vaccinated, up about one percent from last week. Only 43.9 percent of the total population has been vaccinated, with 50.1 percent having at least one shot.

Among adults 18 and over, 53.1 percent have been fully vaccinated and 60.7 percent have had at least one shot. Among adults 65 and over, 70.1 percent are fully vaccinated and 73.8 percent have had at least one shot.

The number of people infected has continued to rise, however, with 3,271 people in Letcher County – 15.1 percent of the population – having already tested positive for the virus. That’s up from 3,069 a week earlier. The official death toll is 54, up from 53 a week before, and the incident rate (the number of cases divided by the population and multiplied by 100,000) is 96.1, down from 112 last week. While Sparkman said the number of outpatients with COVID is beginning to shrink, that statistic comes before people have had time to show up positive after the festivals.

Khater said there is only one way to shrink the numbers.

“There is only one way for us to get through this, and that’s be vaccinated,” he said. “Wear masks, stay away from crowds.”

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