Dr. Paul Beaupre was clear at Wednesday’s community update: If you’re not vaccinated against COVID-19 and you get the virus, you could die.
“One of three things will happen,” the St. John’s Health COVID response advisor said. “You will die, or you will become a long hauler, or you’ll recover and have immunity, in which case you help us reach our goal of herd immunity for the community. But why take the chance of the other two things happening to you?”
“It’s much more sound to get vaccinated and go on with your life.”
Mayor Hailey Morton Levinson hosted the noon presentation, where Dr. Beaupre, Teton District Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell, Director of Health Jodie Pond, and St. John’s interim CEO David Robertson outlined a multi-layered approach to fighting the coronavirus.
Universal masking, testing and contact tracing remain priorities, they said, but right now, the emphasis needs to be on the best tool in our tool belt: vaccinations.
Some of the most powerful testimony came from the hospital’s director of critical care services, Mary Ponce, who spoke about COVID-19’s impact to area frontline nurses.
“Over the last two weeks, we have had an average daily COVID patient census between nine and 12 patients with at least one new patient needing hospitalization each day,” she began.
“With the delta variant our patients are trending younger and with higher acuity ... Many of the sickest patients beg for a break from breathing and want to be intubated.”
The majority of those patients have not been vaccinated. Since July 1, 84% of the patients with COVID admitted to St. John’s Health were unvaccinated, with 92% of those in the ICU with COVID being unvaccinated against the virus.
The Health Department’s dashboard shows 85% of Teton County residents have received the first dose of the vaccine, and 71% are fully inoculated. Vaccination appointments can be scheduled online at www.TetonCountyWY.gov/covidvax.
At the update, health officials begged the rest of the community to get the shot.
“I have witnessed staff going home crying due to death and devastation that they are seeing on a daily basis, [and] with the frustration that this is avoidable if their patients would have been vaccinated,” Ponce said.
“How long are our health care workers going to have to deal with being at their breaking point?”
Ponce described an environment where nurses are stretched beyond their capabilities — physically and mentally exhausted by seeing patients at their worst. Some are leaving health care, she said, due to the emotional burden of the work.
“They may sometimes see a glimmer of hope that someone is improving, yet deteriorating the following day.”
Adding to nurses’ grief is the knowledge that severe symptoms are preventable.
Since July, there have been nine patient transfers, five to Idaho Falls and four to Salt Lake City, Ponce said.
The most recent coronavirus-related deaths reported at St. John’s were a pair of mortalities on July 21.
Since that date, the hospital’s COVID-19 response board has met regularly to manage the crisis, but they didn’t publicly address the community until this week.
Beaupre, in his update, reminded the community that the delta variant is more contagious than the original virus: Each person infected with the delta variant could infect an average of eight or nine others, according to new reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Officials also addressed the rising tide of breakthrough cases. Riddell referenced a few studies that suggest vaccine effectiveness diminished by 20%-25% in the month of July alone. He also referenced a Fourth of July outbreak in Provincetown, Massachusetts, that occurred among primarily vaccinated people.
“That situation has been an indication vaccinated people not only can get breakthrough infections but also spread COVID-19 when they’re infected,” Riddell said.
Breakthrough cases are one of the reasons Teton County case counts keep rising, he said.
Half of all COVID cases are now being reported in the vaccinated population.
Health officials emphasized vaccines still spare people from the worst symptoms of the virus. The CDC states vaccines are “highly effective at preventing severe disease and death, including against the delta variant.” The department has also strongly recommended wearing masks to limit the spread of the variant.
“Of particular concern to me as a pediatrician have been the record numbers of children requiring hospitalization during this surge,” Riddell said. National data shows 2% of pediatric COVID cases require hospitalization.
Pediatric intensive care units are already full at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center and Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, two of the main transfer locations for Jackson Hole children.
While those beds aren’t all for COVID patients, “COVID is absolutely straining these two facilities,” Riddell said.
St. John’s has not yet treated children with severe symptoms, officials said. Schools reopened for in-person instruction Monday, and there have already been positive cases, Director of Communications Charlotte Reynolds confirmed Wednesday. The district is expected to release a more complete report soon.
Mayor Morton Levinson ended the Wednesday presentation by urging the community to rally around this crisis.
“As we heard today, it’s obviously not about any one of us, but about our whole community doing this together,” she said.
From Ponce, who sees the impact of each COVID surge from the front lines, the call was even greater:
“The reason so many people have gone into health care is that we want to help people. During this trying time, we now need the people in our community to help us. I implore you and your loved ones to get vaccinated so that we can continue to serve you.”