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'Help us': With COVID-19 running rampant, Triad hospital leaders make rare joint plea

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The Triad’s three largest health care system leaders warned Monday their hospitals are “threatened” and at a critical stage in how effectively patients can be treated as the COVID-19 omicron variant continues to spread.

The chief executives of Cone Health, Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist and Novant Health made a rare joint appeal, asking the public to follow vaccination and testing recommendations.

The chief executives chose to make their case because of the waves of people coming to hospitals seeking COVID-19 tests as well as something more sobering: the grinding toll the pandemic is taking on health workers.

“COVID-19 is affecting the very infrastructure of what we use to take care of our communities,” Cone Health chief executive Mary Jo Cagle said. “We’re seeing increasing numbers of our employees becoming ill. At this time, we see that our health systems are being threatened … our abilities to care for our communities are being threatened.”

The executives shared the viewpoint of infectious diseases experts that the omicron variant surge could begin to decline by early February. However, Julie Ann Freischlag, the chief executive for Wake Forest Baptist, warned that if the public doesn’t assist with tamping down community spread, “we may continue for an extra few months with the same type of scenario” in terms of cases and hospitalizations.

“We’re waiting to see whether or not people actually pay attention and are able to go back to the constraints we need you to do — even though we don’t like them and you don’t like them — to make it happen,” she said.

The conference call came as North Carolina had a staggering 18,254 new cases on Monday — 176 in Guilford County — as many facets of everyday life are starting to slow to a halt, just as they did in the opening months of the pandemic.

Each chief executive said that more than 80% of their hospitalized coronavirus patients are unvaccinated, which has been a trend for weeks. They admitted they’re discouraged by the way politics has contributed to the longevity of the pandemic, particularly in how it has influenced many to avoid being vaccinated.

Both Swift and Dr. David Priest, an infectious diseases expert with Novant Health, have said the number of COVID-19 cases likely is underreported, in part because most at-home test results aren’t given to county health officials and some who are infected have mild cases and don’t seek care.

Hospital workers, however, haven’t been immune to infection. And as they become sick, the strands of a safety net begin to unravel.

Freischlag said that “with so many of our staff getting infected, so many people are unable to come to work. Everyone is truly exhausted.”

Novant chief executive Carl Armato said the sacrifices made by health care workers signal their dedication to caring for their communities.

“But I can tell you they are tired,” he said, “of being heroes.”

All three health care systems continue to stress they have enough bed capacity, either internally or with affiliated hospitals, to handle the current surge.

Yet they warn of low levels of available beds in intensive-care units.

“It’s going to require all of us working together to help keep you safe,” Cagle said. “We’re telling you we’re at a point where we need the public to hear us and help us.”

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