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with ER Physician, Dr. John White

Dr. White recently answered some questions from the Ashland Daily Press about COVID-19 in the Bay area.

Local health departments report that local COVID cases are being diagnosed at rates not seen since the early weeks of the pandemic. What are the similarities between this wave and the first one, and what is different this time around?

As we now know, the Delta variant that emerged in 2021 is much more transmissible than the original COVID-19 strain and it led to increased overall cases and hospitalizations. In our region, the Delta variant’s impact in 2021 is worse than in 2020, and we see that here at our hospital with COVID beds filling up, tighter visitor restrictions, and our swelling Emergency Department. Now with Omicron, data is suggesting it may be four times more contagious than Delta. That’s concerning to us. Fortunately, we have the vaccine on our side – something we didn’t all have in 2020. But we still need more people to get vaccinated to stop this virus from continuing to have mutating variants. It remains critical to wear masks, social distance, and get tested when symptomatic.

The most common refrain from some skeptics is that the COVID vaccines were developed so quickly and with such new methods that they can’t be trusted. What does science say about that?

This is a very common myth, and an understandable one. Never in the history of mankind was a life-saving vaccine developed with such swiftness and agility. But know that steps were not skipped along the way – processes were immediately put into place to launch this vaccine in an impressive way like never before.

A note about mRNA vaccines: researchers have been studying and working with mRNA vaccines for decades. This wasn’t brand-new technology. The vaccine is safe and effective. It doesn’t have any virus, so it can’t give you COVID and it can’t change your DNA in any way. Any perceived or documented risk from the COVID vaccine is far exceeded by the risk of death and significant illness related to the infection itself.

Another frustration is that the messages from the CDC, the FDA, health departments, schools and other officials sometimes seem contradictory. What should people do to be safest?

I get this frustration, I really do. But do you know what else is frustrating? Dealing with COVID every single hour of a shift in the Emergency Room with community members who refused to get vaccinated and are getting sent home on oxygen because our COVID beds are full. There’s frustration everywhere. But data and information are objective and trustworthy. And let’s not forget – we’re in a pandemic with a virus we’ve never had before. People are trying to make decisions to keep everyone as safe as possible, while also trying to find the best way to get back to life and school and work again. Knowledge related to this virus and others is ever-evolving and the messaging may continue to change. This is truly the nature of science and medicine.

Americans are understandably weary of health restrictions and precautions. What would you like them to hear?

We’re all tired of masking and social distancing. Believe me, wearing a N95 respirator for 12 hours straight is awful. But it’s preferable to being on a ventilator. Wearing a mask in the community is a small way to help all of us. We have to be willing to make some sacrifices in our daily lives and trust data. And the data is showing us the new Omicron variant (which is in our counties, by the way) is four times more contagious than Delta and affects both unvaccinated and vaccinated. The difference is that if you’re vaccinated, symptoms will most likely be mild. If you’re unvaccinated, I might be seeing you in the Emergency Room in a few weeks.

With that in mind, are the precautions we’re taking enough? If you were in charge of keeping our area safe, what would you do?

No, they’re not enough. The biggest thing people can do is get vaccinated and boosted. That’s number one. Number two: people have to consider avoiding large gatherings. It’s just too risky with Omicron. Let this variant pass and we’ll take it from there. But for now, keep masking, no big gatherings, get vaccinated and boosted. I can’t emphasize enough that we are all in this together, and personal and community sacrifice is needed.

Personally, I’d like to see more consistent testing in our country. I know it’s starting to get more ramped up now, which will be very helpful. Testing is such a vital part of keeping us all safe.

Are at-home tests reliable? Can you make good decisions based on their results?

They’re good, not great. There are essentially two tests you’re going to see. The antigen test (at-home tests) with results in 15 minutes, and the PCR test (send-out tests) that get sent to a state lab with very accurate results in about 2-3 days. The antigen tests you grab at your local pharmacy are helpful if you have symptoms and need a quick answer, but they’re not as accurate as the PCR test. If you have strong reason to believe you’ve been exposed and need to get tested, I recommend a PCR test and isolating at home until you get results. Antigen tests are helpful for needing quick results (work, school, meeting with family), but if you don’t have symptoms right away, it can be difficult to get an accurate result. You’re much better off getting the PCR tests at many of the drive-up options we have in our area.

It’s worth mentioning when you take an antigen at-home test, those results are not publicly reported. So when you hear about case numbers in our area, those do not include all the positive at-home tests we’re seeing. It’s safe to assume the numbers of cases in our region are significantly higher than publicly reported.

Hospitals across the country are reporting staffs who, after two years of caring for record-breaking numbers of cases and seeing otherwise healthy people die, are exhausted and suffering what’s called “compassion fatigue.” How are staff members at MMC holding up?

I see this fatigue every single day at work – it’s real, right here in our local Emergency Room. The staff I work with in the Emergency Room are unbelievably tough. I wouldn’t want to be working with anyone else. And we all went into this profession to help people. But it gets really difficult when not everyone in our community is helping us. If more people followed precautions, our critical COVID beds wouldn’t be at full capacity and we wouldn’t be sending people away with oxygen. It gets really hard to deal with this every day and it’s tough to see this many people so sick in our communities. The current patient volume with high care needs is not sustainable for our frontline workers. We’re holding up here at MMC, but we collapse when we get home.

Hospitals and clinics also have reported that patients, some with serious maladies, are reluctant to seek treatment, either because they don’t want to expose themselves or they have heard that hospitals already are bursting. What is your advice for those patients?

This is also very concerning to me. We see this happen with things like stroke. With stroke symptoms, minutes matter. So if people are putting off coming in, it can have debilitating and life-threatening consequences. The fact is, we’re here for everyone when they need us. And when they need us, they should come to us right away without waiting. We’ve got all the processes in place to care for people in our communities. Are we busier than before? Absolutely. Are we going to care for you regardless? Absolutely. Don’t put off getting care if you need help. That’s why we’re here.

This virus, and the behavior of people, have proven extremely difficult to predict. But if you had to, what would you guess the next few weeks and months hold in store for the Bay Area?

COVID isn’t over. I know it’s not what people want to hear, but the tsunami that is the surge of Omicron is on our doorstep. We’re ready here at the hospital and we want to encourage our communities to also be ready. The next few weeks and months will most likely bring an increase of cases, visits to the hospital, and tired staff. It’s coming, and we best be ready when it does. We can all help each other get through this.

What else would you like the residents that MMC serves to know as we head into a third year of life with COVID?

We know that COVID is dominating the airwaves, and rightly so. But in the Emergency Room, we’re still seeing a lot of influenza. Just because COVID is here, doesn’t mean all other viruses disappeared. It’s still vitally important to get your flu shot, which you can also get at the same time as your COVID shot.

We know these are tough times. Coming up on two years of this pandemic, it can feel like we lost two years of our lives. School, work, family life - it’s all been impacted and we know tensions and opinions can escalate in our community. I’d like to encourage people to get vaccinated and boosted for the safety of yourselves, family, friends, and our healthcare workers. Trust your doctors. Trust the data. And in the end, you’ll be glad you did.

Looking for more information on COVID, the vaccine, and testing?

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