Paducah hospital leaders and frontline doctors treating COVID-19 patients are sounding the alarm for residents to get vaccinated and wear masks as the delta variant of the virus continues to spread across the state.
Area hospitals are reporting strains on bed capacity and other resources as they respond to an increase in cases and serious reactions to the virus.
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In a virtual press conference Thursday, doctors and hospital leaders with Baptist Health Paducah and Mercy Health-Lourdes Hospital described packed emergency rooms, with doctors having to decide who gets treated expediently and who waits for hours.
Dr. Keith Kelly, a pulmonary critical care doctor with Baptist Health, said he’s only seen deaths among unvaccinated patients.
“We’ve had a series of deaths of people under age 50. And that’s totally heartbreaking to see happen. It was heartbreaking to see older people die from this before. And it’s even more so now because it’s unnecessary,” Kelly said.
Western Kentucky has some of the lowest county-wide vaccination rates in the state, with the vast majority of counties in Kentucky having a “high” rate of community COVID-19 transmission, the most severe classification from the state.
Kelly said the patients he’s treating are about 20 years younger compared to previous surges of the virus, and he’s particularly worried about running out of vital medicines, ventilators and the equipment that delivers oxygen itself.
“If you were to see the type of suffering and misery that these people go through, I think the most extreme-hesitant-vaccine people would have some second thoughts about what they thought of things before,” Kelly said.
Doctors working intensive care units said they have seen more cases and deaths among younger coronavirus patients, some previously healthy with no comorbidities. Hospital leaders said they were concerned ICU bed shortages could cripple their ability to treat other medical emergencies like strokes. To try and prevent this progressively difficult situation, they repeatedly emphasized that people need to get vaccinated and wear a mask.
Chief officers for both hospitals said they are seeing more positive COVID-19 results when testing patients before procedures and surgeries. Dr. Brad Housman, Chief Medical Officer at Baptist Health Paducah, said the positivity rate for tests at Baptist Health Paducah is above 14%. The statewide rate is around 11%.
“What’s been alarming to me is we’re seeing that [hospital] positivity rate as high as we’ve really ever seen it,” Housman said. “We’re having to be very judicious in how we allocate our surgery spots and our ICU spots, because we’re simply starting to run out of rooms.”
Housman said the hospitals are receiving requests to transfer coronavirus patients from facilities in Arkansas, Mississippi and even Texas, reminiscent of the beginning of the pandemic in the spring of 2020. Health officials in Mississippi recently said their hospital system could collapse in five to ten days if the current trajectory of hospitalizations continue.
Hospital capacity has been strained across the eight western Kentucky counties in the Purchase region. Between July 19 and August 11, the number of people hospitalized due to COVID increased from 56 to 176. Those needing ICU beds jumped from 27 to 65 and those on ventilators went from 10 to 26, according to the Purchase District Health Department:
Dr. Carl LeBuhn, an infectious disease specialist for both hospitals, said people need to take the virus seriously.
“I think it’s just important for people to really understand that in western Kentucky, we’re no different than everywhere else,” LeBuhn said. “If we don’t take ongoing aggressive steps, we’re not going to get it under control.”
Hospital leaders said minors who need care would likely be transferred to a children’s hospital for speciality services, but there are no minors currently hospitalized in either hospital as of Thursday.
Dr. Brett Bechtel, who works in Mercy Health-Lourdes Hosptial’s emergency room, said it’s been difficult to transfer patients who need specialized care.
“We’re already seeing that there’s no place to transfer people. So if you need a higher level of care at Vanderbilt […] all these big systems are already full of COVID and have their own local issues,” Bechtel said. “As this continues, we’re going to have more and more issues trying to get everyone the proper level of care because things are getting really bad again.”
Bechtel said the Mercy Health-Lourdes Hospital emergency room has been “at capacity” with a surge of COVID-19 patients for the past two weeks, straining its ability to treat people with other medical emergencies.
Hospital leaders said they decided to share their stories to help shed light on the increasingly difficult situation the coronavirus surge is creating, and urge those who haven’t yet received a vaccine to get one.
Mercy Health-Lourdes Hospital Chief Clinical Officer Jenny Franke asked those in western Kentucky to consider their community.
“It’s tough to work in health care every single day when dealing with a potentially preventable critical illness, and potentially preventable deaths from COVID,” Franke said. “ Most of us know of folks, friends, family members, church members, who have really suffered from COVID.”