Cheshire Medical Center Experts Urge Action as COVID-19 Infections Surge

Delaney Tenney receives her first shot at one of Cheshire Medical Center’s drive through pediatric vaccination clinics.
Delaney Tenney receives her first shot at one of Cheshire Medical Center’s drive through pediatric vaccination clinics.

On December 2, Cheshire Medical Center suspended all non-emergent procedures and surgeries to make bed space available for COVID-19 patients, responding to the worst regional surge in the 20-month course of the pandemic. Cheshire doctors and other staff are urging the community to take every possible precaution to stem the spread of infection, including vaccination and boosters.

“There are more hospitalized COVID patients in New Hampshire than at any other time,” said Dr. Don Caruso, president and CEO of Cheshire Medical Center. “There are no adult comprehensive ICU beds available in the state. We all need to advocate for measures that will slow the spread and counter the misinformation out there.”

High hospitalization rates include many young and unvaccinated people

Aalok Khole, MD, infectious disease specialist at Cheshire Medical Center
Aalok Khole, MD, infectious disease specialist at Cheshire Medical Center

New Hampshire now has the highest rate of current COVID-19 infections per capita of any state in the U.S., with more than 460 people hospitalized with active COVID-19 infections, and 17 percent of those under age 40. As in other states, the majority of inpatients and nearly all of the serious cases are not vaccinated against the virus.

“About 70 percent of our COVID-positive patients are unvaccinated, while 30 percent are vaccinated, but that does not mean the breakthrough infection rate is 30 percent,” said Aalok Khole, MD, infectious disease specialist at Cheshire, who has treated more than 300 COVID patients since the pandemic began. “The breakthrough rate should be calculated based on how many individuals are vaccinated and how many of those turned positive—and those numbers are miniscule.”

“Also, the ones who are vaccinated will mostly do okay on minimal oxygen support, and end up going home,” continues Dr. Khole. “The ones needing high flow oxygen, or intensive care—or that even end up passing away—the majority, 80 to 90 percent of those, are unvaccinated.”

New Hampshire’s low rate of vaccination, combined with the state’s relatively old population and the movement of group and social activities indoors for the winter season, have all contributed to the current surge. Only about 65 percent of the NH population is fully vaccinated, and Cheshire County is hovering around 54 percent, with even lower rates of vaccination in younger age groups—fewer than 50 percent under the age of 30 are fully vaccinated.

First-hand experience often drives vaccination

“We’ve heard from a lot of people that say they will never get vaccinated,” said Tricia Zahn, MPH, director of the Greater Monadnock Public Health Network. “And then they have their 11-year-old with a 104 plus fever for days, and testing positive for COVID, and they realize that it's not a joke—and they get their child and their whole family vaccinated. It's hard because it has to come so, so close to home before some people who are on the fence make a change.”

Weighing the risks and benefits of vaccination

Among the reasons for vaccine hesitancy is that some people who are vaccinated still end up needing inpatient care for COVID-19, giving the appearance that the odds are similar whether you are vaccinated or not. However, many of vaccinated patients needing hospitalization are immunocompromised or have other significant health issues.

“Some people ask ‘Why should I do something which I don't truly believe in, if I can still catch COVID?’” said Dr. Khole. “What they're missing is the odds are much higher for severe complications or death to occur for those who are unvaccinated. People who are vaccinated and have boosters if eligible are far less likely to become very ill from the disease or die from it.”

Other people who hesitate to get vaccinated are concerned about the potential risks or side effects, but doctors agree that these risks are tiny when compared with the risk of getting COVID-19, with its serious and potentially fatal health impacts.

“Look at the anaphylactic (severe allergic) reaction rates with the mRNA vaccines, which were the first to come out onto the market, for example,” said Dr. Khole. “You have a higher chance of developing anaphylaxis from penicillin, which is a routine antibiotic that has been here for so many years.”

Vaccinated people spread less virus if they do get sick

Not only does the vaccine reduce likelihood of acquiring COVID and of suffering severe symptoms, it also reduces the viral load so that infecting other people is less likely. Doctors are finding that vaccinated patients can be clear of the virus in as little as three days, which can help protect grandparents or other immunocompromised individuals from the virus. There is even evidence that COVID vaccination can be effective in limiting “long COVID,” or long-term, multi-systemic symptoms that are experienced by some who have contracted the virus.

“We are seeing people regain their loss of taste and smell faster if they've been vaccinated,” said Dr. Khole. “Even if you get COVID, post-vaccination, the likelihood that you would get long COVID or any symptoms related to that is significantly lesser.”

Act on what you can control

Tricia Zahn, MPH, director of community strategic partnerships at Cheshire Medical Center and director of Greater Monadnock Public Health Network
Tricia Zahn, MPH, director of community strategic partnerships at Cheshire Medical Center and director of Greater Monadnock Public Health Network

In addition to COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters, Cheshire leadership continues to urge all individuals, regardless of vaccination status, to wear masks, social distance, frequently sanitize or wash their hands, and increase ventilation indoors. People are encouraged to avoid indoor gatherings whenever possible, and if they must gather to get tested before and after. As with the flu, people should isolate when sick and stay home if they have been exposed to someone who may have COVID-19.

“It goes back to the basics of germ theory, which we’ve known about for ages,” said Zahn. “Think of COVID as glitter: If I'm a vaccinated person, and still I contract the disease, I might be dispersing a tiny bit of glitter for three days, and I can be mindful of not having any close contacts outside of my household for that time. If I’m unvaccinated, I could be spreading a lot of glitter for a long time.”

“As long as a virus is allowed to circulate and replicate, it will mutate. That we cannot control. What we can control is to do everything possible to protect yourself, and those around you, and that guidance has pretty much not changed since all this began,” said Dr. Khole. “So keep washing your hands, mask up, stay home when you're sick. Physically distance, get vaccinated and get boosted, if you are eligible. Each one us has to do our part, now more than ever, if we want this to end and regain normalcy in our lives.

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