Medical professionals reflect on year of COVID-19

Published 12:10 am Sunday, April 4, 2021

SALISBURY — Angela Lucas has seen more death in the last year than her previous 16 as a respiratory therapist.

The hardest part is seeing the fear patients have when they get their diagnosis at Rowan Medical Center. One patient, young to be hospitalized for COVID-19, started to cry when his test came back positive. Lucas offers to pray for her patients, and he took her up on the offer to pray then and there.

He was placed on two liters of oxygen, then 10, then placed on a ventilator. He was lucky. He came off the ventilator and went through rehabilitation, eventually being discharged. Lucas saw him the day before he left the hospital to pray with him again.

Many of her patients have not made it. In total, 297 people have died from COVID-19 in Rowan County since the start of the pandemic. County health officials announced the first COVID-19 death on March 27, 2020. Along with other health care professionals at Rowan Medical Center, Lucas has held hands to comfort people and held up tablets or so family members can speak to their loved ones for the last time.

“Those are things that we have done beyond our roles as healthcare workers,” Lucas said.

One of her patients talked to her about his kids. She asked about him a few days later on her next shift. He had died. She cried all the way home on her 50-minute commute.

She feels lucky to have a supportive husband who helps her when she gets home. The worst months were the spikes in December and January, when the disease and the deaths attributed to it were at an all-time high.

“Never ever did I imagine I would see or even experience this,” Lucas said.

It frustrates her people continue to deny the severity or reality of the pandemic based on what she has seen.

COVID-19 patients still come into the hospital now, but things have gotten better. And people are coming a lower rate than they were earlier this year.

Dr. Aboyami Agbebi, the infectious diseases medical director at the hospital, said the last year has been draining.

“What people see in terms of statistics, for us are actual people,” Agbebi said. “That has been the difference. We have seen many people lose their lives to this pandemic in the last year.”

Agbebi said there were double-digit numbers of seriously ill patients in the hospital at once during the virus’ peak. Younger people are less likely to become seriously ill due to COVID-19, but anyone can become ill enough to be hospitalized.

“What’s different this year is I have much less people in the hospital because the nursing homes have done such a good job vaccinating,” Agbebi said.

Not changed is that people continue to say the disease is not real and that the hospital is trying to make money off them. A new issue is hesitancy toward the vaccine, but personal experience can change people’s tune, he said.

Agbebi described a patient who was infected and, along with her family, denied COVID-19 was an issue, refusing treatments until she almost had to be placed on a ventilator. The patient caved at that point, recovered and went home.

When one of her family members came in with COVID-19, he had learned from her experience and accepted all the treatment Agbebi recommended.

“Thankfully, the number of people who are sick has improved,” Agbebi said.

At the pandemic’s peak, Agbebi he could walk the hospital and have 15 new COVID-19 patients in a day, but during the previous few weeks he is seeing a new case every few days. Now, they are younger people.

“It is a dramatic improvement, no doubt,” Agbebi said. “What we kind of have to understand is this: if one person comes to the hospital, what it’s telling us is we probably have double digits of people, 10 people, who are infected but are fine enough to not be in the hospital.”

The unpredictable behavior of COVID-19 infections and how infectious the disease is sets it apart from other viral respiratory infections such as influenza. Agbebi said someone with the flu may infect one other person, but the same person with COVID-19 may infect four others.

Agbebi said variants of COVID-19 worry him because the pandemic has been going on for more than a year. People are fatigued by wearing masks and living differently. But the virus mutates as it infects more people. He said variants will appear for a long time.

“That’s what viruses do,” Agbebi said, adding providers should encourage people to double down on basic safety measures. Vaccines will likely need to be tweaked to better protect against variants, he said.

Agbebi said he wants people to avoid the emotional burden of infecting a family member who does not make it.

“I would rather they take the burden of wearing a mask than these other burdens,” Agbebi said. “It’s easier.”