Jackson General Hospital braces for the worst as COVID cases continue to spike
RIPLEY — It's like watching someone who wishes they had put on their seatbelt after they already crashed through the windshield. They want to rewind the clock, but they can't.
That's how Jackson General Hospital Emergency Room Director Steve Eshenaur described unvaccinated COVID-positive patients.
One COVID-positive patient, Eshenaur said, looked up at him with regretful eyes under the plastic cover of a BiPap machine that was feeding her air and said "If I had to do it all over again, I would have never listened to all the bad advice."
A wave of sadness pummeled Eshenaur.
"I wish she had chosen wisely as well," he said.
Jackson General Hospital
They have been full for the past two weeks.
Jackson General is a critical access hospital — it's the only hospital within a 30-mile radius. It doesn't have an Intensive Care Unit. It has seven emergency room beds and 25 inpatient care beds. There are four ventilators in the hospital.
The inpatient care can hold up to 25, but COVID makes that number smaller. Patients have to be isolated in a room alone, which takes away another bed.
There's constantly a line of people waiting to be transferred to an ICU at another hospital or for a bed at Jackson General. Whenever a patient is intubated and goes on a ventilator, they have to be transferred. The hospital doesn't have the manpower to care for them, Eshenaur said.
There are always at least two nurses working in the emergency room during the day and night shifts. During swing shifts, the busiest time for the emergency department, there are four nurses.
As of Sept. 11, Jackson County had a positivity rate of 9.94% and an infection rate of 74.49, according to the Department of Health and Human Resources. Jackson County isn't alone — out of the state's 55 counties, only eight aren't in the red COVID case count zone. Counties in the red have the highest rate of infection and percent positivity.
More than 160 people hospitalized with COVID were on ventilators across the state on Sept. 11.
The beginning of COVID
When the pandemic began he started changing into his scrubs at work, changing out of them at work. He still does it.
When COVID first struck Jackson County, Eshenaur said, all non-emergency surgeries came to a halt. The emergency room beds were full and the staff wheeled patients into the pre- and post-operation spaces.
One chaotic day, he looked around the emergency room and saw multiple people connected to ventilators. Patients flooded the operation rooms.
"There was nowhere to put anybody new," he said.
The hospital never turns anyone away, he said, but the wait climbed upward of five hours.
Most of the patients that come to the emergency room are related to someone in the hospital. They're someone's mother, son, daughter, father.
"It's family taking care of family," Eshenaur said. "It's personal."
The COVID vaccine
Eshenaur took a sigh of relief when the vaccine became available to his staff. Eshenaur urges people to save themselves by getting the vaccine.
He said COVID-19 isn't any different from other infectious diseases that many Americans have already been vaccinated against like meningitis and polio.
Safety is the major concern. He said misinformation has caused hesitation for some to receive the vaccine.
"When I'm seeing them in the ER, they are not having a very good day," he said. "I've had many patients in with severe disease wish that they had chosen to be vaccinated."
Seeing patients like this still makes him sad. He wants people to help themselves.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, all of the COVID vaccines have at least an 85% efficacy for preventing hospitalization in people 75 years old and younger.
Jackson County is expected to see a surge in cases toward the end of September, he said. Jackson General already has an expansion plan — moving six beds into the operative areas once cases peak — in place to serve as many patients at once as possible.
— Katelyn Waltemyer (she/her) is the General Assignment and Enterprise Reporter for Jackson Newspapers in Jackson County, West Virginia. Have a news tip on local government or education? Or a good feature? You can reach Katelyn at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Kate_Waltemyer.