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Unvaccinated Covid Patients Are Taking Up Hospital Beds. Now, Vaccinated Patients Are Getting Frustrated

Wes Martin in the hospital
Jeri Martin
Wes Martin in the hospital. Martin has been vaccinated and regularly wears masks, but when he had to go to the hospital for a non-Covid-19 related illness, he faced long wait times. He believes it was because of unvaccinated Covid-19 patients in the hospital.

Wes Martin spent days in the Wilkes Medical Center emergency room in early September, his wife Jeri at his side. To pass time and take their minds off Wes' sudden respiratory condition, she started a daily Facebook post titled, "Tales from the ER."

He's a theatre arts teacher at West Wilkes High School, and Jeri said his students message him daily.

"He's beloved by his students, and I know they miss him," she said. "They love doing shows, and they can't do them without him. It affects a lot of people in the community when just one person gets sick."

After 60 hours in the Wilkes emergency room, Wes was transferred to Atrium Wake Forest Baptist Hospital where he was told he had a paralyzed right diaphragm and probably chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, known as COPD. After two nights there, he was sent home and told to see a pulmonologist. But four days later, his oxygen levels fell perilously low, and he went back to the local emergency room. This time he waited 85 hours, after which he was sent home with antibiotics and an oxygen tank.

"Everyone there is sick, sick, sick. And they call it boarding in the ER, which means you're just hanging out there until you can get somewhere," said Jeri. "The ER doctors are being asked to be specialists in fields they're not specialists in. It's unfair to them. It's unfair to the patients. It's unfair to the nurses."

Wes still has trouble breathing but knows it’s not Covid-19. Not only is he vaccinated, but he’s been masking up for months, and he’s had multiple negative Covid tests since entering the hospital the first time.

More than getting sick himself, Wes is upset and frustrated with unvaccinated Covid patients. He feels like he would have been seen more quickly, and had more attention from staff, if the hospital hadn't been so full with Covid-19 patients.

"I don't know how else to say it other than they're using up all the services," he said. "They're using up all the people. They're using up all the beds. And I really and truly feel like it's because of the unvaccinated. They won't get the shot, they won't wear their mask, but when they get sick, they'll certainly go to the hospital."

Wes Martin is the Theatre Arts teacher at West Wilkes High School.
Jeri Martin
Wes Martin is the Theatre Arts teacher at West Wilkes High School.

The Martins aren't alone in their frustrations. Across the state, hospital staff continue to work overtime to expand capacity. WakeMed Health and Hospitals has converted parts of its lobbies into surge space. UNC/Rex Healthcare has delayed opening the Holly Springs hospital to concentrate staff at other facilities.

N.C. Health Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen addressed hospital capacity at a recent Coronavirus Task Force Briefing.

"Our hospitals are strained. And in other states, we've seen that care is not readily available for people experiencing non-Covid life threatening health crises," she said. "We don't want that to be the experience here in North Carolina."

A spokesman for Wilkes Medical Center said he understands the frustrations of patients like the Martins, and urged unvaccinated people to get the shot. He added that hospitals have expanded virtual care settings and asked that people seeking Covid tests not go to emergency rooms.

But for many vaccinated people, images of crowded emergency rooms have invoked anger. Some would like to see people who have been vaccinated and wearing masks get priority medical treatment at hospitals. They say just as hospitals routinely triage patients, why not include vaccination status as one of the factors in that triage?

Total daily hospitalizations in September nearly reached the record level set in January, before a vaccine was widely available.
NC Department of Health and Human Services
Total daily hospitalizations in September nearly reached the record level set in January, before a vaccine was widely available.

Jim Thomas is a UNC Chapel Hill professor emeritus who studies health ethics. He shares the frustration of those who are vaccinated, but says he has real concerns about denying care to the unvaccinated or prioritizing the vaccinated.

He notes that minority populations in particular have many legitimate reasons to be skeptical of the medical profession.

"Are we going to then give them a double jeopardy that because they have that concern, are we now going to punish them again, because they have acted on that concern and held back?" he said.

More broadly, Thomas still approaches the pandemic from a public health perspective.

"If somebody is unvaccinated, and infected, if they are let's say turned away from the hospital in favor of somebody who is, then they are going to be sent back into their community infectious, and could lead to more transmission and more infections," he said.

There's also a real danger in blaming a group of people for their health outcomes, according to Steven Benko, a professor of ethics at Meredith College.

"We're going to create this class of people, and essentially blame them for being what they are. We've done that before. We certainly did that HIV," he said. "The medical violence that has been visited upon other communities in American history, certainly contains some of this weird rhetoric of, 'They don't deserve for some behavioral reason the same care that other people deserve.' And I'm troubled by that idea."

Still, in the same way that alcoholics must stop drinking to qualify for a liver transplant, Benko said part of treating Covid-19 patients could include mandating that those patients get the vaccine.

"If I knew that part of getting treated for Covid, I was also going to get one of those vaccines, I might make the decision ahead of time to just go get vaccinated and save everybody the trouble," he said.

Jason deBruyn is the WUNC health reporter, a beat he took in 2020. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016.
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