‘If people could see what I see’
The emergency room doctor kids about the bags under his eyes. But the wear and tear of COVID-19 on the medical community is no joke.
“I wish people could see what I see,” Dr. Garrett Feddersen says, sprawling back in his chair and shaking his head. “If people walked in my shoes for one day, they would go get vaccinated the next day.”
The COVID situation at the hospital is coming close to matching the worst of the virus in the 2020 “second wave,” according to Feddersen and Dr. Kyle Glienke, Storm Lake UnityPointe family medicine MD. The two spoke with media at Buena Vista Regional Medical Center this week.
The hospital has seen an increase in critical cases over the past two weeks. In this wave, they said, more young and otherwise healthy people are falling profoundly ill.
“Our staff is tired,” Feddersen said. “This wave hits the hardest to me, because it was so preventable.”
Glienke agrees. “More patients makes this harder, and we know there was a way out of this earlier,” he said.
“Currently there is a hospital bed availability locally and regionally, including within UnityPoint affiliated hospitals. Medical cases, including COVID-19, are monitored regularly and we continuously work with our regional partners to ensure patients get the best care available.”
While the local hospital has beds open, that is sometimes not the case for the larger hospitals that it sends crisis patients to for intensive care - Sioux City, Fort Dodge, Des Moines, Omaha and Sioux Falls hospitals are often full when BVRMC calls around trying to find an available bed.
The lack of ICU beds is a national issue. In some cases in other parts of the country, COVID patients are being shipped to different states for an available bed.
The situation is forcing the Storm Lake hospital to keep some very sick patients longer than it would like - whether they are suffering from COVID or other crises like heart failure, the doctors noted.
With that said, both stress that people with medical issues should not hesitate to come to the hospital or clinics. They worry that someone on the verge of a stroke or heart attack will suffer such a crisis at home, although a trip to the emergency room when symptoms arise could save a life.They don’t want to see people continue to put off important health screenings like colon cancer testing or mammograms.
The is no need to be afraid of utilizing the ER or clinics, they say, explaining that hospital staff does an excellent job of separating COVID patients, and maintaining sanitizing efforts to keep the facility safe.
BVRMC tries to keep its COVID patients off ventilators, Feddersen says, calling the equipment “a last resort.” The facility has found that other less invasive technology is available to provide oxygen and address respiratory issues efficiently.
A number of COVID patients, however, have had to be transferred by helicopter in recent weeks - the speed is necessary due to acute need for oxygen in their cases. Traditional ambulances do not carry enough oxygen to get such a patient to Des Moines.
For those who do contract the virus with serious symptoms, the doctors stressed that BVRMC is ready. “You would be challenged to find another hospital our size that has cared for and kept as many (COVID) patients,” Feddersen said. Glienke noted that since the pandemic began, the BVRMC staff has gained a great deal of experience and knowledge in caring for those patients’ needs.
In addition to the physical damage of COVID, the issue is becoming a moral one, the doctors feel, as people are being led to distrust science on virus prevention.
“We as a medical community need to send the consistent message that vaccine is safe and effective,” Glienke said - so much so that the techniques learned in its production will be applied to fighting other illnesses in the future.
“I wouldn’t recommend what I wouldn’t take myself or recommend for my own family,” Feddersen added on vaccine.
BVRMC is seeing a marked difference between COVID patients who have and have not been vaccinated.
“People who are vaccinated can get the virus, but they tend to be able to go home. The overwhelming majority are unvaccinated, that’s what is burning us out,” the ER doctor said.
It has become common to hear BVRMC patients lament, “I should have gotten vaccinated,” Feddersen says.
He admits that it “drives me bonkers” when people ignore the legitimate scientific studies that show vaccine, masks and other preventative measures work.
“Ninety-eight percent of doctors have been vaccinated themselves, and people are going to listen to the 2 percent instead?”
Feddersen said that when the vaccine became widely available earlier this year, he was optimistic. “Summer was nice. Having the vaccine available was a sigh of relief. But that makes having another wave that much harder.”
It’s difficult to predict what will happen with COVID in the months to come, the doctors agree.
“It could be over two weeks from now, or two months from now,” Glienke said.
The local COVID case numbers have started to climb again in the past couple of weeks.
As of midweek, Buena Vista County had seen 43 new COVID cases over seven days, four additional hospitalizations, and a test positivity rate of over 24 percent, all increases from the previous week. The Iowa Department of Public Health Wednesday reported 42 additional COVID deaths in the state over a week’s time. Case numbers now in the state are 20 times higher than in early July. A many as 2,000 new cases in day have been reported recently, and 17 percent of positive tests in recent days are to children under age 17.
The local doctors admit that they worry over a potential outbreak as schools and colleges start back in session, and fear numbers could go up when weather has more people in close quarters inside. Some other states that started school earlier than Iowa have already been forced to cancel classes or events.
“It’s a huge unknown. We had that worry last year and it didn’t really happen, but people used masks and stayed home. I do worry about it - this is very unpredictable,” Gierke said.
The public may not perceive an increase in cases as it happens - as the medical professionals see - unless someone in their own family falls ill. “It’s not like they are watching people dropping dead in the streets,” Feddersen said.
The impact of the pandemic will be felt for years to come - lost work, lost time, extended recoveries. “We see people who continue to not be able to breathe well after they recover, people with ongoing lung issues, people who have had COVID who are more vulnerable to anxiety and depression,” Feddersen says. “We are still learning what the long-term symptoms may be.”
He continues to encourage mask use. “It’s such a simple thing, it has no impact on you. I wear a mask every day and it hasn’t hurt me yet. If we could reduce the spread even 10 percent, it would be significant.”
If people want the school year to continue as normal, the best thing they can do is send their kids to school in masks, and keep them home if they are ill, he said.
Over 30 percent of the eligible population of Buena Vista County remains unvaccinated. Some are afraid of the vaccine, some believe their natural immunity will protect them, and some subscribe to conspiracy theories like the ones claiming the shots are trying to edit their DNR, Feddersen says.
“I don’t care about politics. If it works, I’ll use it,” he says.
Glienke notes that in their training, doctors learn to evaluate the medical literature and recognize what is legitimate.
No matter what people’s feelings or actions on COVID may be, the local medical center is there to help everyone who comes to it, both doctors stress.
“Your personal decisions are your personal decisions. Everything goes by the wayside when you come to our doors. I really mean that,” Feddersen said. “If you’ve had disagreement on dealing with the virus, whether or not you’ve been vaccinated, we’re here to care for everybody.”