BUCKHANNON — With hospitals overflowing and the number of deaths rising, local health officials are sounding the alarm about the severity of the current COVID-19 outbreak tearing through the community.
After reporting more than 100 new COVID-19 cases Thursday and Friday, Upshur County now has the second-highest infection rate in West Virginia, according to the Department of Health and Human Resources. Only Calhoun County is higher.
West Virginia as a whole, meanwhile, is set to enter the worst phase of the pandemic yet within the next few days and weeks, doctors predict. Currently, 25,773 cases are active and that number could soon eclipse the record 29,257 cases set on January 11, 2021 – a month when more than 600 residents succumbed to the virus.
“We can see that more West Virginians are dying now,” state coronavirus czar Dr. Clay Marsh said Friday. “Six weeks ago, we were averaging about six deaths a week. This week we are already over 60.”
Marsh noted that more than 800 West Virginians are currently hospitalized as they battle the virus.
“We’ve reached that level of hospital bed capacity, taken up by people infected with COVID-19, about 100 days quicker than we did during our last surge in December 2020,” Marsh said. “We know that about 85% of our hospitalized patients are not vaccinated, 90% of our ICU patients are not vaccinated, and 91-93% of our people on ventilators are not vaccinated.”
Vaccines have been widely available in West Virginia for months, but only about half the state has been vaccinated, according to the DHHR, well under the national average, which is approaching 75%. In Upshur County, the number is even lower at about 46% vaccinated, the DHHR says.
This week, Governor Jim Justice promised “terrible carnage” due to the low vaccination rate in the state. He is currently offering a weekly prize giveaway for those who get vaccinated.
The recent surge is also affecting a far wider age demographic, with nearly a third of the cases reported in Upshur County over the last week coming from individuals under the age of 20.
An all-time high 507 cases are active in Upshur County, according to the DHHR.
The outbreak has overwhelmed the Upshur-Buckhannon Health Department, which has stopped posting regular updates as they concentrate on containing the virus.
“Due to the high volume of current active COVID cases, administration of COVID vaccines and COVID PCR testing being performed, we are unable to keep up with updates of numbers and vaccine breakthrough cases,” the health department wrote on Facebook this week.
The effect on area hospitals is also pronounced.
“The rapid increase in COVID in Upshur County is severely straining our hospital’s resources,” Skip Gjolberg, President of St. Joseph’s Hospital, said in a press release this week. “I am not sure the community understands how critical this situation has become. We have now moved into the Crisis Level of Code Triage with our Incident Command team meeting daily to assess the quickly changing situation.”
The hospital’s emergency department is seeing a record number of patients, with at least 50 percent testing positive for COVID or having COVID-like symptoms, according to the release.
“These patients are sicker and often younger,” said Maria Long, MD, Emergency Department Director. “With nowhere in the state to transfer them to, we are often forced to house them in our emergency department, sometimes for hours. Our staff is becoming overwhelmed.”
The hospital has halted elective surgery, canceled Saturday’s blood screening and closed the PromptCare Walk-In Clinic to provide more capacity to the Emergency Department.
To help the hospital cope, volunteers have taken up the cause.
Create Buckhannon member Buck Edwards said hospital staff approached him to help organize a food program, and he brought the idea back to Create Buckhannon.
“Their staff is really stressed out right now,” Edwards said. “They’re really shorthanded or working double shifts, and many of them don’t have time to even stop and take a lunch break.”
Create Buckhannon is asking for donations of water, Gatorade, energy or protein bars, chips, packaged cookies or fresh fruit like apples, oranges and bananas. Read more here.
Nationally, the number of new COVID-19 cases decreased more than 10% this week as the Delta surge began to drop off in some areas. State health officials anticipate the peak in cases in West Virginia could come later this month, but they say the effect on hospitals could linger as the treatment of serious cases takes weeks.
The Upshur-Buckhannon Health Department said Friday it will be expanding testing and vaccination dates starting Monday. Here’s the new schedule:
9-12pm: Drive thru COVID testing
1:30-3pm: 3rd dose COVID vaccine
9-3pm: 1st dose COVID vaccine
9-12pm: Drive thru COVID testing
1:30-3pm: 2nd dose COVID vaccine