I take a deep breath this morning as I sit down to put these thoughts on paper. To be honest, the last thing I want to do right now is pick up a megaphone and be a spokesperson for challenging information. I did that last year and 2020 was bad enough.
Like you, I hoped we were over the worst of this pandemic and I was ready to get back to normal. Yes, I was paying attention to the scientific discussion about the Delta variant. But it felt so good to take a break from hypervigilance.
So, pause for a count of three and understand I am writing in the spirit of solidarity. Breathe, two, three… We are seeing the evolution of the COVID virus in real-time, and the Delta variant is changing our understanding. The science is quickly evolving and the guidance can feel like we are on a roller coaster. I want to relate the facts that we know now.
We have faced some challenges at the hospital recently that concern me.
Recently, I have cared for individuals sick with COVID who are much younger than I had seen before and who had no underlying medical conditions. These are healthy people from 30 to 55 years old who are very ill.
I struggled to find an ICU bed for an intubated patient who needed to transfer to another hospital for a higher level of care than we could provide. I could not find a bed in any of the hospitals that typically accept our transfers. They were all full.
Our ER doctors are having the same experience. Unable to transfer patients, our doctors are wondering how we will care for people that are more seriously ill than those we typically care for at our hospital. Not all patients are sick with COVID and there are many factors leading to our present shortage of beds, including a nurse staffing shortage that is worse than we have seen in years.
The trend in COVID cases and hospital admissions is alarming. Nationwide, the number of daily new cases has increased more than tenfold since mid-June. New daily hospitalizations are on a steep climb as well, up 4 times the rate from late June. And the reason for the sudden shift is the Delta variant.
Let me do my best to share some facts which are up-to-date and accurate as of August 1, 2021:
• The Delta variant is very highly contagious. It is more than twice as contagious as the original strain of COVID-19, comparable to chickenpox according to CDC estimates. That means a single case of infection is likely to spread to an additional 5 to 9 other individuals.
• The Delta variant causes more severe illness than the original strain of COVID-19. Recent studies from Singapore, Scotland and Canada suggest hospitalization rates for the Delta variant may be 2 to 5 times higher than the original strain.
• Infections among vaccinated persons, while rare, occur more frequently with the Delta variant. Currently, breakthrough infections in vaccinated persons in the U.S. make up about 7% of symptomatic infections.
• Vaccinated individuals can spread the infection. A CDC publication, dated July 30, 2021, reported that in a large outbreak in Massachusetts, vaccinated individuals who became infected were just as likely to pass the virus to others as unvaccinated individuals.
• Vaccination is highly protective against hospitalization and death. CDC data show that the chance of hospitalization or death from COVID is 25 times lower among vaccinated individuals than unvaccinated. Over 97% of hospitalizations are occurring among unvaccinated individuals.
• Available vaccines are safe and effective. Rare side effects can occur as with any medication. However, the benefits far outweigh the risks.
Taking all these facts into account, here is what it means to me: It is more important than ever that we do what we can to protect ourselves and vulnerable individuals in our community.
Knowing that the vaccine protects us from serious illness is reassuring, though it may not entirely prevent us from passing an asymptomatic infection to someone more vulnerable.
If you are not yet vaccinated, please give a second thought to doing so, to keep yourself and your loved ones healthy and to stop the chain of transmission that leads to additional death.
I encourage us all to consider putting our masks back on when indoors in public and to take those physical distancing precautions that have been shown to be effective.
I am hopeful that we will continue to pull together as a community as we enter our fall tourism season, our kids go back to school, and we spend more time indoors as the weather cools.
When I see young and healthy people becoming seriously ill with COVID, it makes me concerned for our families, our friends and our community. I encourage each of us to take any and all steps to keep each other healthy and thriving – including masking and social distancing indoors and getting vaccinated when possible.
We are in this together. Thank you, Moab!
Dr. Dylan Cole is the Chief Medical Officer at Moab Regional Hospital.