Health officer concerned about surge capacity

Greenbrier County Health Officer Dr. Bridgett Morrison speaks at a coronavirus meeting in April at the Greenbrier Valley Visitors Center in Lewisburg. "The social distancing is working," she said at the time. (file photo by Jenny Harnish/The Register-Herald)

As Covid-19 cases surge upward, Greenbrier County’s health officer is expressing concern.

“Surge capacity is an issue,” Dr. Bridgett Morrison told The Register-Herald. ”This increase in infections is happening before the holidays – that is a big concern.”

The current surge means health care resources will be even more taxed if and when the expected post-holiday increase in Covid cases occurs.

“There are only so many staff members. There are only so many rooms. There are only so many ICU beds. There are only so many ventilators,” Morrison said.

She said the hospital in her neck of the woods, the 122-bed Greenbrier Valley Medical Center in Fairlea, appears to be coping well with the challenge.

“They’ve been proactive since the beginning in keeping staff and patients safe,” said Morrison, who works with the hospital’s incident command. “They have a pretty good disinfection policy there. Logistically, they’re making sure they can go forward as before.”

But she acknowledged that, like most health care facilities, GVMC has had staff members become infected with the virus.

“Even with perfect use of PPE (personal protective equipment), there is still an inherent risk of contracting the virus when you’re in close contact with infected people,” she said. “Almost every entity in this county has had someone who has contracted the virus.”

While the West Virginia National Guard has assisted with cleanup following Covid outbreaks at local churches and nursing homes, Morrison pointed out that clinics, medical offices and hospitals “do their own disinfecting.”

In the first 20 days of November, the total number of active Covid cases in Greenbrier County more than doubled, from 49 to 108, and hospitalizations rose from three to 13. Total Covid diagnoses climbed from 226 at the first of the month to 374 by the 20th, according to county health department figures.

That steep increase, coupled with flu cases that are beginning to crop up locally, led the multidisciplinary Greater Greenbrier Covid-19 Task Force to warn on Tuesday, “This is a critical moment. The more we follow guidelines, the better our results will be.”

The task force urged everyone to mask, social distance and frequently wash their hands.

The task force also asked that people not just show up in the hospital’s emergency room for a Covid test, but to instead make use of community testing at Robert C. Byrd Clinic, MedExpress, Greenbrier Physicians, Rainelle Medical Center and other places.

Contact tracing — the process whereby the health department questions the people who may have been in close contact with a newly diagnosed person — has become more difficult to conduct, Morrison said.

“What makes this work difficult is that some folks don’t give us a full contact list, and some folks we call to trace won’t return our calls,” she reported to the task force.

Morrison said there may be various reasons for an infected person to be reluctant to provide information to the health department, but at the top of the list is embarrassment that the person might have unwittingly passed along a disease to another person. Fear of being accused of not being careful and, thus, bringing the virus on oneself or carelessly spreading it to someone else may also be a factor, she said.

“Some people don’t want to talk to us at all or will only give us a few names for contact tracing,” she said. “Many times, we get calls from people who tell us they were in contact with someone who is infected, but who didn’t provide those contacts to us for interviews.”

Morrison urged everyone to “err on the side of transparency and communication” if contacted for tracing purposes.

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