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Watauga Medical Center Preparing Additional 10-Bed COVID-19 Unit as Hospitalizations Increase

By Nathan Ham

In just the last 48 hours, Watauga Medical Center has had three additional hospitalizations for COVID-19, once again driving home the seriousness of the increasing number of hospitalizations in the High Country.

“There are 93 patients in Watauga County who actively have COVID and here at Watauga County Medical Center, we have 22 patients who are hospitalized right now,” said Dr. Kevin Wolfe, a pulmonologist and lung specialist at Watauga County Medical Center.

According to Rob Hudspeth, Senior Vice President of System Advancement at Appalachian Regional Healthcare System, 22 out of 24 COVID-19 beds at the hospital are full.

“We are preparing another 10-bed unit, which takes a few days to do,” Hudspeth added.

As of right now, the level of personal protective equipment is holding steady, however, things could change if infections and hospitalizations continue to rise. 

“This is assuming things continue at the current rate, but if this thing gets to where we have 35 or 45 patients, then there are some considerations for PPE at that point,” Hudspeth said. 

For the most part, the patients currently hospitalized are elderly, but there are still some who are younger as the virus continues to hit all different age groups. Patients currently hospitalized in Boone reside in Avery, Watauga, Ashe, Mitchell and Yancey counties.

“We are experiencing probably our first surge of COVID-19 patients in North Carolina and even more directly into the High Country. The first surge that went across the nation several months ago, we escaped mainly because of travel vectors. Traveling in the summertime to North Carolina is more prevalent, especially from places in the south that are seeking an escape from the heat, unfortunately, COVID hit our state as well,” said Dr. Wolfe.

One of the major symptoms that bring people to the hospital is when COVID-19 begins to affect the lungs, hindering the ability to breathe for a lot of people and thus limits the supply of oxygen that gets into their body.

Dr. Wolfe says that there are 653 people hospitalized in western North Carolina right now. He expects that the new 10-bed unit at Watauga Medical Center will be ready by next Friday. 

“One of the nice things about Watauga Medical Center is that we’ve been more proactive to the disease than we have been reactive. We’ve been planning for COVID since January,” Dr. Wolfe said. “This COVID management team that we have looks at the availability of our workforce in terms of doctors that work in the hospital and doctors in the community, the nurses and all the therapists involved in the care of the patients, and we look at the availability of the protective equipment we use and the availability of our pharmaceuticals. As a consequence, we’ve been able to watch what is going on nationally and have models that predict when we are going to be hit.”

Not overworking doctors and nurses is obviously a concern during this pandemic, but there are only a certain number of caretakers trained for critical patient care. 

“The big deal for us is you only have so many critical care trained personnel. These are the people that run to the fire, they don’t run away from it. They continue to work and they don’t realize they are burning themselves out so we have to be careful to protect those resources,” Hudspeth said.

Folks are reminded to continue to take social distancing precautions and wear a mask when out in public. Access to a vaccine is also getting closer, although no official timeframe has been released for when it will be made available to the public.

“I was able to speak to our local hospital officials last night about their expressed concern their facility could soon be stressed by the rising caseload across our region. We’re so close to the finish line, with vaccine distribution set to begin in a matter of weeks thanks to President Trump’s Operation Warp Speed. I will continue taking precautions with the end of this pandemic within reach, and encourage everybody else to do the same,” said Sen. Deanna Ballard in a statement to the High Country Press.

Daily COVID-19 updates for Watauga, Ashe and Alleghany are provided by Appalachian Regional Healthcare. Those updates can be found here.