Carroll Hospital President Garrett Hoover is as happy as anyone about the COVID-19 vaccines that could eventually end the pandemic. But he is urging Carroll countians to stay vigilant.
“I’m very optimistic about the future, but I don’t want the community to have a false sense of security, either,” Hoover said. “Masks, social gatherings in small groups, all of those public health announcements you’ve heard time and time again — please don’t let your guard down. Now is not the time.”
He was speaking as the head of a hospital that is essentially full, whose critical care unit has been jam-packed since Thanksgiving, and as the leader of a staff that is “exhausted” as the second wave of COVID-19 has been on far greater scale than the first.
On Thursday morning, the hospital was treating 29 COVID-positive patients and 17 patients suspected of having the virus. Those numbers are down from a week ago, when the hospital was treating more than 40 patients who had tested positive. Carroll has had 50 to 55 patients per day in isolation, compared to 20 on average before the pandemic.
The hospital’s 12-bed critical care unit has been full since late November, its emergency room registered its highest volume days since February over the past week and the total number of patients hit 170 on Thursday. Last May, at the peak of the first wave, the hospital was averaging around 115 patients, Hoover said.
“We were pretty fortunate during wave one of this pandemic,” he said. “But this second wave, Carroll’s really been hammered. ... I look at the data daily. We’ve been having a very busy time since Thanksgiving.”
The increase in hospitalizations makes sense given the spike in COVID-19 cases in Carroll County over the past month. More than 400 individuals tested positive the week of Dec. 6 and again the week of Dec. 13. Carroll rarely saw more than 100 cases in a week before November.
On Nov. 30, Carroll County Health Department data listed 3,319 total confirmed cases of COVID-19. On Dec. 30, that number was 4,985 — a 50% increase in cases for the entire year in just one month.
While most of the COVID-19 cases coming through Carroll Hospital during the first wave were patients from elder care facilities, Hoover said about half of the positive cases and people suspected of having the virus in the hospital now are aged 40 to 60.
“So it is affecting a younger population,” he said. “It’s not just a virus that affects the elderly.”
Hoover said 773 members of Carroll Hospital’s staff have received the COVID-19 vaccination. Other front-line workers and first responders are receiving the vaccine through the health department. It will likely be months, however, before the vaccine is available to the general public. Hoover is expecting things to get worse before they get better.
“We haven’t seen the height of this second wave yet,” he said. “The post-holiday surge due to increased travel, larger group gatherings, not wearing masks, etc., has yet to happen. We’re seeing high numbers now and, I think, two weeks from now we’ll see potentially higher surge volume.”
Carroll Hospital is in the second phase of a four-phase surge plan. He said the hospital will do what it has to in order to care for patients. That may include further utilizing preoperative and postoperative space, condensing the operating room schedules and canceling planned surgeries.
Gov. Hogan issued an executive order in the spring halting elective surgeries for a time, but for now those choices are being left up to individual facilities and Hoover said Carroll Hospital has had to make some difficult decisions. While life-saving surgeries and those related to cancer or neurological issues will go on, others, like hip and knee replacements, are dependent on resources.
“If we need those beds to care for COVID patients, we’re going to cancel those elective procedures,” he said.
When the critical care unit is overflowing, however, Hoover did say that sometimes patients must be transferred to other facilities. There have been times, though, when a transfer couldn’t be accommodated because all CCUs throughout the state were full.
Carroll Hospital currently has five patient care techs, six registered nurses and several other non-clinical staff members who are COVID-positive, each having picked up the virus from the community rather than at work, Hoover said. He noted that the hospital is in good shape in terms of personal protective equipment. But even those members of the staff who aren’t sick are feeling fatigued from the workload.
“I’m extremely impressed and proud of the Carroll staff, but I’d be lying if I said they weren’t exhausted,” the president said.
Hoover, whose tenure at Carroll Hospital began at essentially the same time the pandemic made its way to Maryland, said he has been most appreciative of the support the hospital has received from Carroll countians, including the many donations of money, food and gift cards. He said he’s concerned about local residents right now.
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“This virus is extremely scary,” he said. “I don’t want our community to think they’re not going to get it. The numbers are alarming and I think the post-holiday surge is something we need to be watching very closely.”