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Health care leaders work to stem surge

Berlin Daily Sun
Published: 10/20/2021 6:07:35 PM

As active COVID-19 cases continue to surge in the valley, healthcare and community leaders are going to extraordinary lengths to urge residents to get vaccinated, wear masks and take precautions in an effort to stem the tide.

Berlin and Gorham have twice used the E-911 system to do a mass phone call to 8,000 households, alerting residents of the two municipalities to the large number of positive COVID-19 cases and asking people to take proactive measures.

Androscoggin Valley Hospital President and CEO Michael Peterson and Coos County Family Health Services CEO Ken Gordon have met with the Berlin City Council and the Gorham select board to explain the situation. Information has been posted on social media and interviews given with media across the state.

The all-out offensive comes as positive cases of COVID-19 remain at the highest levels of the pandemic, with 174 active cases in the Berlin-Gorham area and 217 active cases in Coos County, as reported by the state Friday.

As the surge strains healthcare facilities and staff, Peterson said he fears the numbers are not going down soon.

“I think we are still in the early stages,” he said Friday at the now daily COVID-19 community Zoom sessions.

There were nine COVID-19 patients at AVH Friday with two in the intensive care unit including one on a ventilator. Peterson said all of the critically ill COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated.

Last week, the Berlin school system had 42 students and three staff members who tested positive for the virus.

Since the beginning of school this fall, Berlin has had a total of 103 students and 14 staff test positive. The Gorham school system last week had six active cases.

The current surge has taxed staffing levels that were already stretched thin by two years of the pandemic.

“We’re holding our own right now,” Peterson said, noting the hospital is transferring non-COVID-19 patients to other hospitals to ensure staff and space to deal with the surge. The hospital has also transferred a number of COVID-19 patients who required a higher level of care than AVH could provide. Peterson noted that other hospitals are also having staffing issues and ICU beds are critically low across the state.

Peterson said the hospital is postponing elective surgeries and limiting walk-ins to the lab. But he said the surgical associate offices are open and seeing patients.

Gordon and CCFHS Nursing Manager Valarie Hamel said their agency has closed its waiting rooms and is moving to telehealth visits for the next couple of weeks.

Hamel said CCFHS will continue to run its testing and vaccine clinics. She said three people had tested positive Friday including a 2-year-old.

While health officials said they have seen a slight uptick in requests for vaccines, they report the demand is largely for third doses. So far, booster shots are only available for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

Hamel said a majority of the vaccines given out here earlier this year were the Moderna vaccine and that vaccine has not yet been approved for booster doses. It is expected to be available by the end of the month.

Health-care officials say the region’s low vaccination rate is helping to fuel the surge. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show just over half, 56%, of Coos County’s population is fully vaccinated. The figure for the rest of the state is 62%. With wide community transmission, the recommendation is to wear masks in public, social distance, and stay home as much as possible to get the outbreak under control.

All North Country Hospitals and CCFHS are requiring staff to be vaccinated with exceptions for legitimate medical and religious reasons. AVH employees must be vaccinated by Oct. 22 and Peterson said 20 have said they will not get vaccinated (about 6% of total staff).

Health-care organizations and schools report the pandemic has stretched staff thin and personnel are battling stress and fatigue.

CCFHS Chief Medical Officer Dr. Bonnie de Vries said it is tough to be so long into the pandemic and see a surge like this. There is competition for healthcare workers across the state and local nurses are receiving calls from traveling nursing companies offering large hourly rates beyond what local facilities can offer.

Peterson said it is also tough for staff because they are frequently taking care of patients they know.

“These are our family members, our loved ones, our neighbors, our relatives,” agreed Hamel.

De Vries said she sees people willing to bring their best selves to work every day.

“I’ve never been prouder of our staff,” said Peterson. “They are committed to winning this fight.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.



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