One by one, Coastal Georgia’s senior medical directors took to the podium Monday to join their communities in urging their communities to get vaccinated, with voices tinged with exhaustion, frustration and, in one case, tears.

“This is a pandemic for the unvaccinated and largely preventable,” said Dr. Alan Brown, Chief Medical Officer of Southeast Georgia Health Systems, which covers Glynn and Camden counties. “One hundred percent of our intensive care patients did not receive the vaccine. … But for some reason we cannot get this message across to our communities. “

More:Low vaccination rates, delta variant flare-ups in Chatham COVID cases, and hospitalizations

Brown spoke of canceled surgeries and procedures as his nurses had to move to cater to the rising number of critically ill patients diagnosed with COVID-19 infections. His experience was vindicated by Donna Cochrane, senior nurse at Liberty Regional Medical Center, which has overcapacity with 33 critically ill patients vying for 25 beds. With 18 employees suffering from COVID-19, Cochrane had to leave the press conference on Monday at the Coastal Georgia Botanical Gardens early to return to the hospital.

The Effingham Health System’s resources were so overwhelmed that the facility could not dispense with a representative to attend the press conference, admitted a representative from the Coastal Health District.

A combination of relaxed attitudes and behaviors, the return of indoor events and social gatherings, increased travel, low vaccination rates (32.25% in the entire district with eight counties) and the highly transmissible Delta variant has the rise of new COVID-19- Cases fueled here and across the country. In Jacksonville, Florida, in a preview of what Coastal Georgia could expect, Brown says more than 80% of all hospital beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients.

More:Despite vaccine availability, Chatham, Bryan and Effingham are still seeing COVID cases

“Just a few weeks ago we thought we would return to a certain level of normalcy, but today, in August, we are here and we find that all the metrics we are tracking from the pandemic are now back in the red,” sighed Dr Lawton Davis, health director for the Coastal Health District of Georgia Public Health with eight counties. “In fact, many of the [the metrics] are off the charts and at an all-time high. “

“Your decisions are important when it comes to vaccinations”

Both St. Joseph’s / Candler and Memorial Health are reporting COVID-19-related hospital admissions at or near the peak of last year, and those numbers are expected to rise. The majority of patients are unvaccinated and the breakthrough cases (vaccinated, test positive for COVID-19) among hospitalized patients are those with existing comorbidities.

“The current projections I’ve seen assume we’ll be looking at the first week of September before this really peaks and wears off,” said Dr. Jeff Kenney, the medical director of the emergency department at St. Joseph’s Hospital.

“We are in the most difficult phase of these 18 months,” said Dr. Stephen Thacker, Associate Chief Medical Officer at Memorial Health, who is also a pediatrician and an infectious disease expert. “Death from COVID-19 in the US should be viewed as a vaccine preventable outcome. Well, almost every loss of life to this virus is a loss that I would say didn’t have to happen. Because of this virus, nearly 1.5 million children have lost a loved one whose purpose it was to raise them. That’s one and a half million children who grow up without parents or grandparents or a loved one to teach them to read, drive … or for those crucial moments when the child grew up. “

Dr.  Stephen Thacker, Associate Chief Medical Officer, Memorial Health, speaks at the Coastal Health District news conference on August 9 about the need for vaccinations.  Dr.  Also pictured: Jeff Kenney from St. Joseph's Hospital (left) and Dr.  Alan Brown, Chief Medical Officer, Southeast Georgia Health System (right).

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While no vaccine is 100% effective, the three emergency-approved COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to prevent serious illness, hospitalizations, and death, even with the more virulent Delta variant.

“I never thought that I would miss normality so much”

But officials say it is too late to ask about the vaccine once a patient is hospitalized and fighting for every breath.

Candler Hospital ICU nurse Kelley Stewart had to grapple with patient regrets as the ICU is filling up again. In the quiet horseshoe-shaped unit on the second floor of Candler, 10 patients on ventilators are locked behind French windows, unable to speak, unable to move, unable to be comforted by loved ones.

“I’ve seen more tears, more crying. I’ve seen more injuries than I’d ever want to see with just this virus in my entire life, “said Stewart.

Candler Hospital intensive care nurse Kelley Stewart has been serving on the COVID unit for 18 months.

For the past 18 months, Stewart has held patient hands as proxy for family members who are not allowed to visit. She celebrated when they got off the ventilators and was the last voice they heard as they slid off this earth. She had to say goodbye through Zoom to her own father-in-law, who died of COVID-19 in rural Georgia before a vaccine was available. And she was gratefully vaccinated and claimed as a badge of honor.

“You know, you can’t get this life back – that father, that mother, that sister, cousin, that grandmother who just makes these recipes. Those are the things we won’t get back, ”said a masked stewart as she looked through the empty waiting room in the intensive care unit and wiped a tear from the corner of her eye. “But we can control it when we get the vaccine. We can say we did our part. ”

Stewart isn’t sure what will bring people over this hump to get the vaccine not only for himself but for the wider community as well. “You only notice it when a family member or friend goes through it, until it becomes personal. At that point they say, ‘Hey, maybe this is something I should be worried about.’ It’s a little daunting to say the least. “

If she could, says Stewart, she would stand in front of the hospital and put a vaccine in each arm. She understands people’s fear, but adds, “If I am afraid of something, I will make sure that fear does not lead to loss of life. If I can do something that will protect as many people as possible, I’ll take the path that leads to less harm. “