A commentary by University of Maryland Upper Chesapeake Health’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Fermin Barrueto and the UM UCH medical staff leadership:
The pandemic began for us in March 2020, when the first COVID-positive patient for any University of Maryland Medical System hospital arrived at Upper Chesapeake Medical Center. No one could have predicted what the last year and a half would be like, battling a once-in-a-century pandemic that continues to sweep the world in waves.
From the beginning, health care workers everywhere were called heroes. In Harford County, our community showered us with love, prayers and support.
Fast-forward 18 months. Hospitals and health systems in Maryland and all over the country are short staffed, under strain and struggling to keep up with the demand. Our team at UM Upper Chesapeake Health is tired, frustrated and facing our own mental health challenges.
More than 10,000 residents of Maryland have died from COVID-19 and that number keeps climbing. Our emergency departments at both hospitals are seeing patients with more complex issues coming through our doors. And, sadly, among the 13 UMMS hospitals, Upper Chesapeake Health is seeing the most COVID patients.
Why is this still happening? In January of this year, we had two vaccines, and we had hope. Our vaccine team distributed over 35,000 vaccines to individuals in our community while we waited for pharmacies and physician offices to receive their own supply. By the spring, the distribution of three vaccines was wide enough that anyone who wanted the vaccine could get one.
Yet, as of today, the COVID vaccination rate for Harford County is just 57 percent.
Put yourself in the shoes of health care providers who have seen, firsthand, what this disease can do to you. It ravages the lungs. It makes you feel as if you’re drowning and cannot catch your breath. And, for some, it takes away your future and time spent with family and friends. To know that there is a vaccine to prevent this terrible illness that is not being fully utilized is beyond baffling.
The COVID patients we are seeing today are very sick and younger than we have seen before, and the majority are unvaccinated. We are also preparing for pediatric surge cases. Breakthrough infections do happen but rarely because the vaccine is 95 percent effective. However, as we continue to battle this terrible virus, its many variants have been no match for the available vaccines thus far. By avoiding vaccination, the virus and its next variants win.
As physicians, we are data driven. We trust the science. Everything we do to treat our patients — whether it’s vaccines, medications or the therapies we use to treat COVID patients — depends on sound, peer-reviewed research. We have been on the front line of this pandemic since the beginning, and we could never adequately describe the great loss and heartbreak we have witnessed.
This is why we, the medical leadership of Upper Chesapeake Medical Center, fully support the University of Maryland Medical System’s decision to make the COVID vaccine a condition of employment for all of its team members, in precisely the same way flu, measles and mumps vaccines are required across our system.
All health care workers are responsible for protecting our patients, colleagues, families and communities. We ask the people of Harford County to help us and those around you by getting vaccinated.