Mark Boucot

Mark Boucot, president and chief executive officer of Garrett Regional Medical Center, as well as Potomac Valley Hospital in Keyser, West Virginia, gets a COVID-19 vaccination in spring 2021.

CUMBERLAND — A high number of local COVID-19 cases, combined with a low community vaccination rate that leads to overrun hospitals, has created “a recipe for disaster,” Mark Boucot said.

Boucot is president and chief executive officer of Garrett Regional Medical Center, as well as Potomac Valley Hospital in Keyser, West Virginia, through a management agreement with WVU Medicine.

“Both hospitals are pretty full right now,” he said Thursday and added that several COVID-19 cases were at each facility. “Of the patients at PVH, zero are vaccinated, and a couple of them are in the (intensive care unit).”

At that time, none of the COVID-19 patients at GRMC had been vaccinated against the disease, Boucot said.

“We’ve had non-COVID patients that we’ve been unable to place, that have been very sick,” he said.

Students in the Keyser, West Virginia, area returned to school roughly two weeks ago.

“We’re now seeing the ramifications of it,” Boucot said. “We’re overrun with COVID patients. We actually had to institute our incident command system two times this week to deal with the surge of patients where we created overflow units in the hospital to care for patients that had COVID.”

The hospitals have also expanded their monoclonal antibody infusion clinics to treat people infected with COVID-19, he said.

According to the Maryland Department of Health Friday, Garrett County had the state’s highest daily COVID-19 case rate, and lowest proportion of population that had received a second or single dose of vaccination against the disease.

Boucot talked of feeling surprised when he first learned of folks who refused to get inoculated against COVID-19 after a vaccine became available, and said he wanted the shot as soon as he was eligible.

“We had a relative pass away (from COVID-19) very early on in this whole scenario. So for me, as soon as we could get the vaccine, I jumped right on it,” he said.

“I was not thinking that there would be such an extreme level or a high level of (vaccine) hesitancy that we have here,” Boucot said.

GRMC has launched campaigns to promote COVID-19 vaccination safety that include newspaper advertisements for the general public and private conversations with its employees.

“All the physicians that practice at (GRMC) are vaccinated,” Boucot said.

Gov. Larry Hogan on Aug. 18 said that while many Maryland hospitals across the state required workers to be inoculated against COVID-19, some had far too many unvaccinated employees that were needlessly exposing vulnerable patients to the virus and its delta variant.

Hogan issued a mandate to change the situation, and required hospital and nursing home employees to get their first COVID-19 vaccine no later than Sept. 1.

Many hospital employees are unwilling to comply with the state’s vaccination order, however.

“We’ve had 12 resignations over the last two weeks,” Boucot said.

“You’re either going to have people quit because they don’t want to get the vaccine, or you’re going to have people out (sick with COVID-19 and) being quarantined until they’re cleared to come back to work,” Boucot said.

“So, the short-staff situation is going to end up happening to the hospital either way,” he said. “I would rather address the issue proactively and strive toward making sure the staff that’s going to be here in the end is safe and protected.”

On Friday, GRMC’s COVID-19 vaccination rate among employees was “75%, and climbing,” Kimi-Scott McGreevy, the hospital’s assistant vice president of marketing and development, said via email.

At that time, the vaccination rate among staff at PVH was 70% and expected to rise as a clinic for employees was scheduled Friday morning, she said.

The mission of GRMC and PVH is that patients should be treated “like they were our own family,” Boucot said.

“My heart hurts when somebody passes away,” he said.

“I just feel like this is what we’re here to do is protect people,” Boucot said. “There’s a way to do that safely with a (COVID-19) vaccination and you sometimes feel like you can’t convince people to protect themselves.”

GRMC on Friday morning was treating six admitted COVID-19 patients, and had one ICU and six regular inpatient unit beds available.

PVH was caring for nine COVID-19 patients, had no available beds and canceled elective surgeries.

“Our high demand season begins now,” Boucot said of typical pre-COVID-19 conditions that require inpatient care including the flu and respiratory problems.

“Now that school is starting back in Garrett County, it is a concern,” he said.

“My biggest concern is the safety and welfare of our community and people here,” Boucot said. “It keeps me up at night all the time.”

Questions unanswered

UPMC’s website Friday stated “the COVID-19 vaccine is not mandatory for UPMC employees. We are excited about the reports of the vaccine’s effectiveness and safety.”

The Cumberland Times-News on Friday asked the hospital whether the statement applied to UPMC Western Maryland employees.

At that time, the newspaper also asked the hospital “what percentage of UPMC Western Maryland staff is vaccinated against COVID-19?”

UPMC officials did not provide specific answers, and instead emailed the following statement:

“UPMC Western Maryland follows all current governmental requirements and is complying with Maryland Department of Health guidelines. UPMC will continue its vaccine advocacy and outreach efforts, make vaccines easily and readily available for all, and maintain employee, patient, resident, and visitor masking requirements in all of our facilities regardless of vaccination status.”

The state’s method to enforce Hogan’s mandate on the issue was also unclear.

Without a hospital’s cooperation, it’s difficult to know how many hospital workers have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

MDH on Friday referred inquiries regarding staff vaccinations to the Maryland Hospital Association, which said the “average vaccination rate for hospital employees across the state is above 80%,” but added that specific local questions should be directed to each hospital itself.

CTN also asked UPMC Western Maryland if any of its staff members resigned from their jobs due to Maryland’s COVID-19 vaccination mandate.

That question also went unanswered.

Additionally, the paper asked for UPMC Western Maryland’s status with COVID-19 patients and beds, whether the hospital was at capacity, still accepting new patients or referring them to other hospitals?

No information was provided specifically regarding the Western Maryland hospital.

UPMC officials instead responded:

“Across the UPMC system in the U.S., we are treating 402 inpatients who are positive for COVID-19: 138 are in southwestern Pennsylvania; 25 are in northcentral Pennsylvania; 100 are in southcentral Pennsylvania; 65 are in northwestern Pennsylvania and New York; and 74 are in the Altoona region and Maryland. Because of our extensive planning and preparation, UPMC facilities are safe, and staff are well-equipped and know how to properly care for patients with COVID-19.”

Cases, vaccinations

According to the Allegany County Health Department, from Thursday to Friday the county had 98 new COVID-19 cases and one death due to the disease.

MDH on Friday reported 1,553 new COVID-19 cases, 15 additional deaths and 14 more hospitalizations across the state in the past 24 hours.

Garrett County had the state’s highest daily COVID-19 case rate at 14.94%, the statewide average was 4.67%, Allegany County was at 11.25%, and Washington County at 6.82%.

Allegany County topped Maryland’s seven-day moving average COVID-19 case rate per 100,000 people at 56.6, with the statewide average at 16.5, Garrett County at 39.88 and Washington County at 31.4.

To learn more about COVID-19 testing and vaccinations in Allegany County, call (301) 759-5000 or visit health.maryland.gov/allegany.

For Garrett County, call 301-334-7698 or visit garretthealth.org.

School cases

According to Allegany County Public Schools, for the week of Sept. 3 to 9, nine staff members and 41 students were reportedly positive for COVID-19.

Six staff members and 182 students were identified as a close contact to a positive person.

Eight staff members and 150 students were identified as having COVID-19 symptoms.

Four classrooms in South Penn Elementary School had at least two individuals who tested positive for COVID-19.

“This outbreak resulted in the closure of one kindergarten classroom,” ACPS said via press release Friday.

Schools that had two or more individuals in a classroom/cohort that tested positive for COVID-19 included two classrooms at Fort Hill High School, one at Allegany High School, and Washington Middle School had a cohort outbreak in their sixth-grade class.

Additionally, one school bus from Mountain Ridge High School and another from Mount Savage School each included two or more individuals that tested positive for COVID-19.

“In all cases, parents were notified of the outbreak status,” the release stated.

“All listed positive cases isolate for 10 days, and all listed close contacts quarantine,” ACPS Public Information Officer Mia Cross said via email Friday.

“Those who are vaccinated and do not have to quarantine are not included in the count,” she said and added that individuals with COVID-like illness “will be out until they get a test” or alternate diagnosis.

“We do get cases reported to us on weekends,” Cross said.

Teresa McMinn is the Digital Editor for the Cumberland Times-News. She can be reached at 304-639-2371 or tmcminn@times-news.com.

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