NC hospital CEO: We’re putting up tents now because of COVID. It’s simply exhausting.

·3 min read

Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, we often heard “it’s a marathon, not a sprint.” While the marathon is an unparalleled test of endurance, at least each one is the same distance — 26.2 miles. For the last 18 months, our teammates across UNC Health have been running this grueling race only to see the finish line pushed backward time after time.

We felt like we saw it briefly, in June as hospitalizations across our statewide health system hovered around 50 patients. Since that point, however, we have been climbing a hill that — like the growth in our COVID inpatient census — has felt vertical and getting steeper each day.

We have returned to many of the mitigation measures of our previous surges in the summer of 2020 and early in 2021. Tents have gone up outside of the Emergency Department at UNC Rex to handle the overflow of patients seeking treatment. We have reduced the number of non-emergency surgeries we’re performing. We postponed the opening of a new hospital scheduled to open in Holly Springs so that our clinical care teammates would be available to care for rising numbers of COVID patients at Rex.

What we have faced from mid-July to now, the rapid increase of hospitalizations, fueled by the delta variant and accelerated by vaccine hesitancy, looks familiar, yet feels very different from other moments during the pandemic.

It is frustrating and isolating in healthcare right now as we face more sickness and suffering while other parts of society press on as if the pandemic is over. Our teams are simply exhausted.

Dr. Wesley Burks
Dr. Wesley Burks

UNC Health is proud to be North Carolina’s health system. We work each day to meet our mission to improve the health and well-being of the people of North Carolina. It is a great privilege to care for patients from all 100 counties, but right now we need your help.

Although the trend for COVID cases is somewhat encouraging, we still have hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians who have not been vaccinated.

If you have not been vaccinated, please don’t wait another day and if you have already been vaccinated, please encourage your family members, friends, and neighbors.

We have safe and effective vaccines that are free and widely available. We know they work. More than 381 million doses have been safely administered in the United States.

The numbers and trends in our hospitals at this moment could not be clearer: Nearly 90% of our COVID inpatients are unvaccinated, 95% of our ICU patients are unvaccinated.

The vaccine is the best way to protect yourself and the best way to support our healthcare heroes.

In July at UNC Medical Center, staff from the Cardiovascular and Thoracic Intensive Care Unit gathered outdoors for a game of UNO with a patient — the first post-COVID patient to receive a lung transplant. The team cared for this patient with incredible skill through a complex procedure and recovery, but the time they spent playing a simple card game, sharing a moment of fun and true human connection, speaks to their empathy. I can’t imagine running this race alongside better people.

Please, get vaccinated and do all you can to protect those around you. Help put some wind at our backs. Help bring the finish line back into focus.

Dr. Wesley Burks is CEO of UNC Health Care and Dean of the UNC School of Medicine. As CEO he oversees UNC Health Care’s statewide network of affiliate hospitals and health systems.

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