Regional Medical Center officials are urging people to get vaccinated amid a rise in the number of COVID-19 cases.
The hospital’s COVID-19 patient population leapt dramatically over a three-week period from approximately six to 49 as of Friday.
“We're anticipating that the volume is going to continue to be high. We want to take care of as many patients as possible. Our main limitation in regards to our ability to take care of patients is going to be if we have enough staff," RMC President and CEO David Southerland said.
Karrie Powell, RMC’s vice president of patient care services, said the increase in COVID-19 cases is coupled with more severe illness among patients.
“Whereas before they'd come in for 10 days and get some breathing treatments, now they're coming in and there's multi-system organ failure and they're getting put on ventilators. This delta variant is more virulent and it's taking people out, especially people with any health ailments,” Powell said.
The hospital has a total of 65 negative pressure rooms with specialized air filters to specifically handle COVID-19 patients. Powell said it is among the measures the hospital has taken to assure individuals the hospital is a safe place to come for care.
"We have put in many safety precautions. Our staff are gowned in protective gear. We've put every measure in place possible, to include screening at all our entrances, limitation of visitors and isolation of COVID patients. So I would just encourage people not to wait to go to their doctor and not to wait to get care,” Powell said.
Southerland said vaccinations are critical in helping reduce the proliferation of the virus, more specifically the much more contagious delta variant.
"We have got to encourage everybody to do that. We have seen vaccination rates go up with the number of people that are coming to the various clinics that we provide. We do provide a clinic over in our urgent care department every Friday, and then we also offer the vaccines in all of our primary care offices,” he said.
“Those are all available. The vaccinations are free. They are also offering vaccinations at CVS and Walgreens. I think Grove Park Pharmacy does it as well," he said.
Southerland said he has been telling people in his own family to get vaccinated.
“I would say the largest percentage that are coming to the hospital that need to be admitted are people that have not been vaccinated. Then there's also a smaller percentage of people that have been vaccinated, but with the delta virus now coming out, they're getting re-infected. That's called breakthrough cases. So we're seeing a growing number of them as well,” he said.
Powell said of the outpatient testing provided in the hospital emergency department, 49 tests out of approximately 153 administered on Friday came up positive.
Southerland said, "About 30 percent of those patients that are tested are sent home and quarantined. So that's a much higher number than what we saw before."
He continued, “Our physicians, especially our infectious disease physician, are telling us that the most recent delta variant of COVID-19 is significantly stronger than the previous COVID-19 virus.
“So that's why I think we're seeing such a huge increase in COVID-19 patients that find themselves sick, or not feeling well, and they come to the ER."
A national shortage of registered nurses has forced RMC to use travel nurses.
“We have contracted with a company called Qualivis to provide us with travel nurses. ... One of our big challenges right now in the ED is making sure that we have enough staff to cover the patients," Southerland said.
“We do have full-time permanent nurses that work in the ED, but we need more," he said.
While the RMC usually sees approximately 110 to 120 patients come through its emergency department, “We’re pushing upwards of 150 to 170 per day,” Southerland said.
“People are sick now, they're in for COVID swabs. So it's congesting the ED,” Powel said. She urges individuals to use RMC Express Care, which is located on the RMC campus in the Annex Building at 3000 St. Matthews Road.
“The wait times are a fraction of the times in the ER. So I think if that gets out to the community, then the gentleman who is waiting eight hours trying to get a swab could go there in an hour," Powell said.
“I think people in the community have this impression that the only place that they can come is the ED, and that’s not correct,” Southerland said, noting that Santee and Holly Hill are among the areas where RMC primary care centers are located.
RMC announced Aug. 13 that it would reinstate patient visitation restrictions in response to the rising number of coronavirus cases within the state.
Visitation hours for non-COVID patients are set from 9 a.m. until 2 p.m. Monday through Sunday. One visitor is allowed per patient per day.
No visitors are allowed for any COVID patient or any patients in the ICU.
The main entry point for patients and visitors is the patient registration entrance. The main entrance lobby and waiting area is temporarily closed until further notice.
“It’s not to make everybody miserable. It’s just that we need to protect the population and people coming because of the high risk,” Southerland said.
Powell said staff burnout is a reality, with the hospital working to incentivize staff who have been asked to work longer hours.
"To date, we've had great support from our state representatives. We continue to appreciate that support,” she said.
Powell continued, “We're a standalone hospital. I think we're one of 10 left in the whole country. So we don't have that overarching umbrella. Really, the state is our lifeline. So they have worked really closely with David and put some packages together to make sure that we have equipment, that we do have funds to incentivize people.”
Southerland said while RMC has a strong inventory of medicine and personal protective equipment compared to a year and a half ago, “Things change very rapidly.”
He said the hospital had a total of 168 patients as of Friday, but would not have the ability to staff the 286 beds the hospital is actually licensed to serve.
Powell said, “What we don’t want to do is create an unsafe environment and not have enough staff.”
Southerland said, “We're trying to keep up, and with more and more patients potentially coming to the ED, that's one of the reasons we suggested that they go to urgent care or look at some other alternatives.”
“It's going to be a battle over the next couple of months as long as this keeps up. So I think the solution is to convince the community to go get the vaccination. Hopefully, that will thwart back the overall spread of the virus,” he said.
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