'We just want people to stay healthy and stay out of the hospital, and the vaccine is the way to do that'
While the COVID curve is improving locally, HaysMed continues to see an significant number of hospitalizations from its service area. Many of these patients are being admitted for weeks or months.
Dr. Heather Harris, HaysMed chief medical officer, said Friday the hospital has a steady COVID inpatient census of 12 to 14 people.
"Four or five of them from Ellis County, but all of the rest from our service area, so it's still 'local' COVID," she said. "While the curve is better, it's still out there. If you're unvaccinated or not immune from a prior illness, it's really just a matter of time until you get COVID."
Harris said the delta variant has increasingly put otherwise healthy younger people in the hospital with significant complications.
"The average age (of inpatients) is 55 years old. Last year, this was an illness of older people," she said. "These are middle-age folks getting hospitalized and pretty sick.
"And they're all unvaccinated, so we know the vaccine works. We just want people to stay healthy and stay out of the hospital, and the vaccine is the way to do that."
As of Wednesday, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, 49 percent of eligible Ellis County residents (12 and older) were fully vaccinated. That's up just 6 percent from Aug. 28, and well below the state rate of 60 percent.
Harris said while there have been a handful of vaccinated patients admitted for COVID, each one was suffering from another significant underlying illness.
She was told recently by a patient that the reason he was not getting a vaccination was because "I know people who got the vaccine and got sick."
"But are they in the hospital? No," she said. "We know you can still get COVID ... but the point of the vaccine is to keep people out of the hospital and prevent them from dying."
She said the symptoms of COVID for a vaccinated individual are mostly like a cold or a bad case of bronchitis — not a hospital stay.
For those who take the bent of "if I don't get tested, I don't have COVID," Harris warned of the dangers to others.
"You're risking the people around you," she said. "If you're irresponsibly going to work or to school, not wearing a mask, spreading the virus ... we've had cases where young people are around older people and the older people have actually died from COVID."
Harris also pointed to new research that suggests pregnant women should be vaccinated.
"We know there's an increase in mortality, being pregnant is a strain on the body alone. Add a pretty virulent virus, and it's just increasing that strain on those pregnant moms," she said.
While no extremely young people have been admitted to HaysMed during the latest COVID spike, Harris also encouraged children to receive a vaccination.
It is "disheartening" for HaysMed nurses and doctors to see so many COVID patients, Harris said, and that feeling of frustration is intensified when the patient is a friend or relative of the health care worker.
"It saddens us," she said. "That frustration when we know if they would have made a different choice, they wouldn't have gotten sick. Nurses and providers are here to help people be well and live their life, and when people are laid up in the hospital for months ... they never had to get sick in the first place. ... And it saddens us to see how sick they get."
As of Wednesday, the patients at HaysMed ranged in age from 37 to 83 — all unvaccinated.
"There have not been as many deaths (compared to last year's fall COVID spike) because these are younger people," Harris said. "But they are being hospitalized for weeks to a month or more. And then the recovery at home will last months after that ... they feel terrible for a long time, and I think we're going to see some permanent damage to their lungs."
Some patients have been in the hospital for up to 40 days.
Because of the length of those stays, HaysMed continues to have intermittent capacity issues with ICU beds. Harris said the hospital was forced to close to out-of-county transfers several times over the past month.