Dr. Aaron Parker Banks gets emotional when talking about the toll Covid-19 has taken on his tightknit rural community in northeastern Kentucky, where he works as the only physician at a clinic.
“I’ve held the hands of people dying of Covid,” he said. “I’ve had close friends lose their lives, even at my age,” said Parker Banks, who is 35. “I’ve had somebody who was like a second mom to me lose her battle.”
There are “just not words for what we’re experiencing right now at the health care forefront,” the doctor said.
As the Omicron variant continues to blitz the country, Kentucky this week hit an all-time high positivity rate for Covid-19: Almost one in three – 30.25% – residents who were tested were positive for the virus.
“The increase is significant, severe,” Gov. Andy Beshear said, with “72,165 new cases in one week, by far more than any other surge that we have had.”
And the state’s health care workers are once again bearing the brunt of the brutal surge.
In rural areas such as Owingsville, Kentucky, where Parker Banks works, resources are stretched, with health care workers out sick themselves.
“It definitely puts a strain on the system, on an already-strained system,” Parker Banks said. “Right now, we have probably a 40% reduction in staff currently, today, due to Covid or Covid exposure. With that, everybody else here has to pick up a significant amount.”
And even though the Omicron variant on the whole causes less severe disease than Delta before it, the overwhelming number of infected people has led to full intensive care units again.
“It seems that because Omicron in general appears to be a milder disease versus the Delta, we’re still having a lot of hospitalizations because a lot of people are being affected just by the sheer numbers,” said Dr. Steve Koenig, medical director of the pulmonary division at St. Claire Regional Medical Center.
Koenig said he thinks fewer people are requiring ventilators now than during the Delta surge. Still, for many health care workers on the front line, not much has changed. They are still seeing a lot of very sick people.
“It’s rare to get an open bed,” said Phelan Bailey, administrative director of the emergency department/critical care at St. Claire HealthCare in Morehead. Patients wait 12 to 20 hours or so for a bed, and a few weeks ago, “we had patients that were down there (in the emergency room) for 24 or greater hours,” Bailey said.
The Morehead facility was so swamped in September, the National Guard was called in to help. The difference between now and then, Bailey said, is that “we’ve had a lot of nurses who have left the facility, left health care in general, just because of the enormous stress that the patient acuity has put on them.”
“We’ve had several who have either gone out on some kind of leave or actually just left the workforce altogether because of the stress,” he said.
In checking in with staff members, “they’ll tell us, you know, I’m at my breaking point. It’s just too much. I’m seeing too much sickness, too much death,” Bailey said.
Unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people make up almost 80% of those cases, nearly 85% of hospitalizations and more than 83% of deaths.
That fact adds to the strain on staff members, who know the severe illness and death could have been prevented.
“When we’re filling up beds for what I feel like something that could be mostly prevented with vaccines and masking, it’s very hard to keep seeing the nurses keep pulling that load over and over every day,” said Charlotte Kinney, nurse manager at St. Claire Regional Medical Center.
“My greatest fear right now is not managing the disease,” said Donald Lloyd, St. Claire’s CEO. “It’s keeping the resilience of our clinicians and our nurses and our therapists and all the teams, they are exhausted and they feel frustrated.”
“To some extent they feel disenfranchised, because, you know, they pleaded and pleaded with people to please wear masks, get vaccinated, and that message just has not resonated as effectively as we wished,” Lloyd said.
One Covid-19 patient at St. Claire is among those not fully vaccinated. Sharry Conn, 80, had one shot of a vaccine, but got sick before she could get the second, she said. Conn, who has diabetes and asthma, credits that one shot with keeping her from being even sicker.
“The way I can understand, I didn’t have it bad, like some people, because some people won’t take shots like that,” Conn said.
Now, she said, once released, she will get that second shot.
CNN’s Miguel Marquez and Aaron Cooper reported from Morehead, and Theresa Waldrop wrote from Atlanta.