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Young, Unvaccinated Arkansas Residents Hit Hard By COVID


* It feels like we've been here before, watching with worry as the average number of new daily coronavirus infections rapidly tick up. This time, nearly 60% of adults in the U.S. are fully vaccinated, and it is states with low vaccination rates that are getting hit the hardest, including Arkansas, where new cases are surging due to the highly contagious delta variant. About 36% of adults are fully vaccinated in Arkansas. The state also has a ban on mask mandates. Schools and public buildings cannot require masks to be worn.

Debbie Hewett is director of critical care services at Mercy Hospital in Fort Smith, serves more than a dozen counties in northwest Arkansas. Thanks very much for being with us.

DEBBIE HEWETT: My pleasure. Thank you.

SIMON: Is your ICU full, may I ask?

HEWETT: It is almost full. The problem is our nursing staffing is low, so we can't fill every bed at this point. So a lot of our patients who need an ICU bed are being shipped to other states or to the closest ICU bed that's available. Our COVID unit in the ICU is full, though.

SIMON: And this is like the previous waves of the pandemic?

HEWETT: Yes and no. As far as the numbers it is, although our numbers are rising more quickly this time. But the biggest difference is just the age and how rapidly the patients decline. The first wave or two, we saw a lot of elderly patients, 65 and over. This time, it's most definitely focused on that 65-and-younger population. And whereas before they would linger for 30, 60 days on a ventilator, this time it's 10 or 14 days, and then they're dying. They're just - it's - I don't even know how to explain it. It's been horrific for us to watch this happen again.

SIMON: May I ask, are they unvaccinated?

HEWETT: So the majority of the patients we've had here in Fort Smith have been unvaccinated, yes. I'd say about 98% have been nonvaccinated this go-round.

SIMON: Have you been able to talk to patients and ask why they haven't been vaccinated?

HEWETT: Not so much the patients. By the time they reach us, a conversation like that is...

SIMON: Yeah.

HEWETT: ...I don't think is appropriate. It's wrong timing. But I - there's a lot of people I know that are not vaccinated. And I think a lot of it is they feel that the government shouldn't tell us what we should do, that it is experimental. There's not enough data in their mind to convince them that it's safe. I try to use facts as much as I can to explain that it's not an experimental vaccine, that it went through the trials and it's working.

And you mentioned, you know, we don't have a mask mandate in Arkansas. And I know there's some senators who are going to challenge that, but I doubt the governor will go through and change his mind on it, which is unfortunate because you walk into stores like Walmart, and there are signs that tell you, you know, if you're fully vaccinated, you don't have to wear a mask. Well, you walk into Walmart, and I'm probably one of 10 people in the entire store wearing a mask, yet we're 33% vaccinated in Sebastian County, so the majority of people at Walmart are not vaccinated. And that's why our COVID numbers will continue to rise.

SIMON: Would you have any advice as to what might be able to reach into people and make them change their minds for the sake of their own good health?

HEWETT: I would love to bring everyone into this ICU and show them what happens and show them that when you get to that point that you are dying on a ventilator in a COVID unit, that you have to decide which of your children get to come and say goodbye to you because we only allow two people at the time of death to come up here, and they get to view you through a window. You can't even go in the room. And I don't think people realize that and how sick people are on the ventilator.

SIMON: Is it hard for your staff to once again be working long hours, once again be dealing with life and death and know in their best selves that a lot of this was preventable?

HEWETT: That's the hard part. You know, the first two waves that we had, we didn't know what to expect. We had a reprieve in May where we had zero COVID patients in the ICU. And then it started coming back. And it's been almost worse because we know what we're going into. And then seeing all these younger patients, it's just been devastating for the staff. They get so connected because they truly are the lifeline. They're the only ones here who can go in and see and touch these patients. We've lost nurses because of the emotional distress that they're under.

You know, this is a common theme across the country right now in ICUs where everyone is short staffed. And now if you were to come into the hospital, say, with a non-COVID illness but you needed an ICU bed, you're not going to get one. And we're looking as far as West Texas to try to find a bed for patients who come into Fort Smith, Ark. That is frightening. And again, like you said, it's preventable. We just need to get the vaccine.

And it's not that I'm trying to sensationalize what's happening.

SIMON: Yeah.

HEWETT: This is real. And if this reaches one person and that one person gets a vaccine, then that's a success in my book. Yesterday, we had 9,000 people in Arkansas get vaccinated. I was told that's fantastic. And if that's a trend that we can continue, we may get there.

SIMON: Debbie Hewett is director of critical care services, Mercy Hospital, Fort Smith in northwest Arkansas. Thank you so much for being with us.

HEWETT: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.