‘People are dying’: NCH doctor’s emotional plea for unity, vaccinations

Published: August 6, 2021 11:51 AM EDT
Updated: August 8, 2021 6:52 AM EDT

The CEO of NCH Healthcare System and medical staff delivered a plea to the Southwest Florida community on Friday: Get vaccinated or we’ll pay the consequences.

“We need to unify more than ever,” said Paul Hiltz during the update on the increasing number of COVID-19 cases and their plans to respond to the rise in hospitalizations.

On Friday, the hospital system reported treating 152 patients who tested positive for COVID-19. Of that number, 126 patients, or 83%, are unvaccinated. Thirty-six of those patients are in the ICU. Of those, 18 patients are on ventilators. The age range of hospitalized patients runs from 9 to 100. NCH says with patients being admitted and discharged throughout the day, that number will fluctuate.

Jon Kling, chief operating officer, said, “Right now we have patients waiting in our ER, and we’ll get discharges and we’ll admit those patients, but by tonight, we’ll have another round of patients waiting for those beds again.”

Dr. Douglas Harrington, a pulmonary critical care physician at Downtown Baker Hospital, had a strong message to the public.

“What we’re now seeing with this present surge is a firestorm in our community of the pandemic,” Harrington said. “This pandemic was absolutely preventable by following science and becoming vaccinated.”

The vast majority of the patients now being seen in NCH hospitals with COVID-19 are younger and healthy, with one as young as 2 years old.

“They’re becoming critical not in a week or two, but within days, so that ability to see the patient, to have days to get them on treatment, is not at our hands anymore,” Harrington said.

“Now, they come in the hospital and within 24 hours they’re in the intensive care unit.”

One patient in his early 30s was admitted to Baker Hospital two weeks ago short of breath and COVID positive. Harrington said the man has since had cardiac arrest and is on “full-blown life support on a true heart-lung machine and has been on that machine for two weeks.”

“I am more comfortable here working the ICU than I am going into any business with unmasked people right now,” Harrington said. “I’ll stay in the ICU, wear my mask, work 24/7. I am that concerned about the community.”

As of Friday, the ICU at NCH went from 26 to 36 patients within 24 hours.

“We have a deep fear we have not reached that peak yet,” Harrington said. “People are dying … The time is now. We need to vaccinate.”

When asked about the misinformation about the vaccine, he said, “This vaccine is extremely safe … This misinformation is based on false claims and concerns,” before going on to dispel multiple false claims being made against the vaccine.

Regarding the number of deaths currently being reported, Harrington explained, “No, we’re seeing deaths, we’re absolutely seeing deaths. This surge we’re in, it’s happened so fast that we literally don’t have the data of what our death percentage is.”

The latest reported numbers show 58 people die every day on average from COVID-19 in Florida – the highest average in the nation.

“I sympathize with them,” Fred Smith said. “I’m not in the medical field, but I can understand his frustration.”

Many people agreed with Harrington about getting vaccinated, but some say it might not be enough to change everyone’s mind.

Postponing non-emergent, elective surgeries

NCH also said Friday it will postpone non-emergent, elective surgeries.

According to the press, “NCH is currently collaborating with our surgeons to reschedule appropriate elective cases to allow better patient placement of emergent admissions. We will continue to perform emergent, urgent and immediate needs procedures. Starting Monday, some outpatient procedures are being relocated to the NCH Bonita Outpatient Surgery Center.”

NCH says it’s partnering with surgeons and using recommended guidelines.

MORE: COVID-19: Guidance for Triage of Non-Emergent Surgical Procedures

Effort to stop spread community spread

As part of its effort to stop the spread of COVID-19, NCH and the City of Naples are promoting a joint program called “CommUNITY ImmUNITY.”

According to a press release, “NCH is proud to once again be partnering with the City of Naples on an educational initiative promoting ‘CommUNITY ImmUNITY’ by strongly encouraging our citizens to get vaccinated. Just like the past ‘All Heroes Wear Masks’ public service announcement campaigns that sought to keep us safe in the days before we had a vaccine, this new initiative carries a similar message of safety by encouraging our community to get vaccinated.”

For more information about “CommUNITY ImmUNITY,” visit NaplesInUnity.com.

Last week, NCH set a new policy requiring all its workers to be vaccinated by Sept. 16 or face termination unless they fall under a religious or medical exemption. Hiltz said since that announcement, several hundred more employees have been vaccinated, bringing their vaccination rate close to 70%.

“Whatever variant comes after the delta variant will make the delta variant look like a weakling,” Harrington said, adding more vaccinations and herd immunity could stop it.

We asked the president of NCH if we might soon see tents in front of his hospitals to handle the overflow of patients. He told us that could happen as soon as next week.

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