Another Covid surge is here. This time hospital patients are younger and sicker

NHRMC is bracing for a surge of Covid-19 hospitalizations, potentially greater than what occurred earlier in the winter, “despite having safe and effective vaccines widely available,” a Novant spokesperson said. (Port City Daily/Courtesy New Hanover County)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY –– Covid-19 is once again threatening to overwhelm New Hanover Regional Medical Center in this most recent surge of the virus, fueled by the delta variant and exacerbated by full-fledged reopenings and lifted mask mandates. Patients as young as in their 40s are succumbing to Covid, after New Hanover County went several weeks with zero deaths.

In a press call Thursday, NHRMC’s chief clinical officer Dr. West Paul reported a “dramatic increase” in Covid hospitalizations, both in the critical care unit and among regular patients, over the past four to five weeks.

“We’re also seeing a sicker population, more acutely ill, that are coming in,” Paul said.


RELATED: FDA approves Covid booster for immunocompromised individuals

New Hanover County tallied more than 1,000 active Covid-19 cases Thursday. About half of those were reported within the past week.

“We know that this is a result of our delta variant, which is incredibly more contagious than what we saw early on,” Paul said. “It is certainly spreading, and as we have lessened some of the mandates for masking, as well as congregation and reopened up, we’re seeing that spread quite fast. We have not seen this rise to this extent even early on in our greatest numbers.”

NHRMC is treating a younger population than it was previously. During the surge in December and January, the average Covid patient at NHRMC was in their 60s. Now the average patient is in their 40s.

“We mostly saw severe illness in the 65 and older, and I can’t say that now,” Paul said. “We’re seeing in the 40s, in the 30s with severe disease.”

Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center is seeing the lowest average age since the onset of the pandemic: 48. Across all Novant systems, the average age is 44, down from 61.

Statewide, statistics show those 65 and up were more eager to line up for the vaccine than the rest of the population.

About 57% of New Hanover County residents (133,192 people) have received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine. Around 53% (124,281 residents) are fully vaccinated. After “weeks of slow growth,” New Hanover County is now reporting a slight uptick in vaccine demand as Covid-19 resurges, inoculating 1,900 people with their first dose over the past week.

Still, New Hanover County Health and Human Services director Donna Fayko asserted in a news release this week: “We need more unvaccinated people to step up.”

The majority, more than 90%, of hospital patients are unvaccinated and are sicker than ever before during this pandemic, according to Novant. A small number are suffering from breakthrough infections, although those individuals tend to experience less severe illness and are not admitted to critical care units, Paul explained. The few vaccinated patients who do end up in the hospital are typically older and chronically ill.

NHRMC went almost eight weeks in July free of any Covid death. This past week, five deaths, all among unvaccinated people, were reported. Dr. Paul explained it’s difficult to treat Covid patients because other than prescribing steroids, which has proven effective, there is no “magic bullet medication.”

Now, with the “incredibly infectious” delta variant in the midst, the emergency department waiting room is populating. The rise in need for medical attention is a combination of both Covid-19 and “acuity of illness” –– “a perfect storm,” Paul called it.

“A lot of our community has put off a lot of health care because of the pandemic,” he explained.

Novant is bracing for what’s to come as hospital beds fill. According to the North Carolina Health and Human Services Department Covid-19 dashboard, 804 inpatient beds are in use in the southeastern region of North Carolina, which covers seven counties; 224 beds are empty-staffed and 364 are either unreported or unstaffed. As well, of the 113 ventilators available, 61 are in use.

Novant is not as concerned about supplies as it was at the onset of the pandemic, but staffing and space are bound to become an issue if Covid continues trending the way it has. In the meantime, before the hospital reaches its breaking point, NHRMC is pleading for the community to get their shots.

Paul advised people to individually make the choice to resume masking and social distancing to help slow the spread once again. He recognized more political discussions about government mandates are to come. As school reopens, districts –– such as New Hanover County Schools and Brunswick County Schools –– have faced the politically contentious decision to send students to school wearing face coverings.

Children’s hospitals in other states, where schools are already back in session, are reporting an increase in pediatric patients. NHRMC is admitting children at this time. Paul said that includes those 11 and under, the ages ineligible for the vaccine.

“We were kind of head down, taking care of patients and really not wanting to get into the political fray,” Paul said. “But it’s come to the time now where we’re seeing this resurgence, and people being hesitant about vaccines, and knowing what we know, it’s time for us to talk about what we’re seeing.”

Novant Health and New Hanover County are the first and fifth-largest employers in the county. Both have implemented a vaccine policy for their employees. County employees may submit to weekly testing in lieu of receiving the vaccine.

“We hope the actions taken by the county can serve as a positive and proactive example for others in our community to take the same steps because we are at another critical point in the pandemic where action is necessary,” county public health director David Howard said in the county’s release.

Since the first Covid-19 case in March 2020, almost 17 months ago, more than 21,200 people in New Hanover County have tested positive for the virus. Of those, 185 died.

Multiple Covid-19 clinics are now offering walk-in appointments to receive the free vaccine:

Health and Human Services Health Clinic (1650 Greenfield Street)
– Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
– Tuesday, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Independence Mall (3500 Oleander Drive)
– Tuesday and Thursday, from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m.

A Shot & A Beer: Vaccine Happy Hour at Hi-Wire Brewing (1020 Princess Street)
– Friday, August 20, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.


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