With COVID hospitalizations peaking in Guilford County and across the state, deaths among elderly patients have continued to rise while local health officials scramble to roll out vaccinations.

Guilford County hit a record high number of hospitalizations on Monday, with 244.

Cone Health, the Guilford County’s largest hospital system, also reported 244 hospitalizations on Monday. Those numbers also account for two hospitals in neighboring counties. The Green Valley campus is treating the most critical COVID patients, according to spokesperson Doug Allred, but Moses Cone Hospital and Wesley Long Hospital, also in Greensboro, are also treating COVID patients. Cone Health’s numbers also include Alamance Regional Medical Center in Burlington and Annie Penn Hospital in Reidsville. Guilford County’s total hospitalizations also include High Point Medical Center, which is not part of the Cone Health System.

“There is a direct correlation between the increased cases in our area and the increased number of deaths,” Dr. James Wyatt, the medical director at Moses Cone Hospital, told Triad City Beat in an email. “At Cone Health, we are treating 244 people with COVID-19 today. On Dec. 1 that number was 141. On Nov. 1, it was 64. Increasing numbers of COVID-19 patients will mean more delays in everything but emergency care as ‘traditional hospital services’ are pushed aside. Unfortunately, more deaths will follow.

“Cold weather brings people even closer together, which is what we don’t want to happen,” Wyatt continued. “It is vital that people stay away from one another, especially the elderly, wear masks, frequently wash their hands and when offered a vaccination — take it.”

High Point Medical Center, which is part of the Wake Forest Baptist Health system, was not able to provide hospitalization numbers, but a spokesperson said in an email to TCB: “We are seeing a very high number of patients requiring hospitalization due to COVID-19 and are constantly monitoring capacity projections across the region. In addition, we continue to evaluate and adjust our surge plans and staffing to ensure we are meeting the healthcare needs of those who depend on us.”

Elsewhere across the state, COVID hospitalizations present a similarly vexing picture.

“Our hospitalization numbers are alarming,” Gov. Roy Cooper tweeted on Monday. “We must protect hospital capacity so anyone who gets sick for any reason can get the care they need. It’s up to us to prevent our healthcare system from being overwhelmed.”

Cone Health opened its Green Valley facility, formerly Women’s Hospital, as a special COVID hospital in April 2020, but spokesperson Doug Allred said that “the pandemic has passed the point where that is the case.” Allred said that as COVID patients fill beds, the demand on the system is edging out gall bladder surgeries, hernia surgeries and the like.

After bottoming out in the summer, COVID deaths in Guilford County began a steady rise, from 38 in September to 53 in October, based on a review of death certificates provided by the Guilford County Register of Deeds. The monthly death toll leapt to 78 as cold weather pushed people inside in November. The count for December is already at 81, and that number is incomplete because the lag in reporting is generally about 10 days. Roughly consistent with the trajectory of the pandemic since last March, 83 percent of those who have died from COVID in Guilford County in the past two months are 65 years or older.

The Guilford County Register of Deeds has recorded 469 COVID deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. The deaths recorded by the register of deeds include all people who died as a result of COVID in the county. The Guilford County Department of Public Health tracks a different number — Guilford County resident, at 312. Information on the death certificates shows that while the majority of the patients dying from COVID at the Green Valley hospital in Greensboro and High Point Medical Center are Guilford County residents, many others come from Alamance, Rockingham, Randolph and Davidson counties. Even some of those dying in Guilford County nursing homes are officially listed as residents of other counties.

Broken down by week, the number of deaths climbed from 15 on the week before Thanksgiving to 30 on the week of Dec. 6-12. While the death count appears to have dipped slightly after that, there is not sufficient data to gauge the period after people gathered with family and friends for Christmas.

Currently 43 residents and 12 staff members are positive for COVID-19 at Meridian Center in High Point, where eight residents have died in the past month. (photo by Jordan Green)

Nursing homes and long-term care facilities have not been spared.

Meridian Center, a short-term rehabilitation and long-term nursing care facility that boasts its physicians have admitting privileges across the street at High Point Medical Center, had managed to avoid a single death from COVID through November. But on Dec. 5, records show, a 72-year-old woman from Greensboro died from multiple organ failure due to sepsis and COVID. Then, in the space of six days from Dec. 11 to Dec. 16, seven others died from COVID, either as a direct cause or underlying cause. Ranging in age from 66 to 95, most are from the High Point area. Their professions include home health aide, accountant, real estate broker, college professor, painting contractor and a laborer for a furniture company.

Currently 43 residents and 12 staff members are positive for COVID at Meridian Center, according to Genesis Healthcare, the Pennsylvania-based company that owns and operates the nursing facility.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to those impacted by COVID-19 during this difficult time, especially the families of the eight residents who passed away,” Dr. Richard Feifer, the chief medical officer for Genesis Healthcare, told TCB in an emailed statement.

Feifer said Meridian Center has either followed or in some cases gone beyond the guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He said the facility has worked to prevent the spread of the virus with a number of steps, including screening residents and patients for symptoms three times a day; and cancelling outside medical appointments with the exception of necessary, time-sensitive and life-saving procedures like dialysis and chemotherapy. He said the facility is maintaining visitation restrictions, and using videoconferencing to help residents maintain contact with family members.

The deaths reported at Meridian Center far exceed any other nursing home or long-term care facility in Guilford County in the past five weeks. Records show three deaths in December at Ashton Health & Rehabilitation in McLeansville, and one each at Countryside Manor in Stokesdale, Guilford Health Care Center in Greensboro, Heritage Greens Senior Living in Greensboro, Hospice Home of High Point, Richland Place in Greensboro and Spring Arbor of Greensboro. The News & Record recently reported that a resident of the WhiteStone Masonic and Eastern Star retirement community in Greensboro died from COVID at a local hospital. The newspaper quoted the facility’s executive director as saying that “several members of the WhiteStone community have tested positive for COVID-19.”

The most recent report from the NC Department of Health and Human Services on ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks at congregate living facilities, which came out on Dec. 22, does not mention WhiteStone. The next report is scheduled for Tuesday at 4 p.m.

UPDATE: WhiteStone Masonic and Eastern Star retirement community confirmed on Tuesday that three residents have died, up from the one that had been previously reported. Executive Director Mark Lewis said two tested positive for COVID, and one is suspected but not confirmed. Lewis said 37 employees and 31 residents who are currently positive at the retirement community are currently in quarantine.

“This is a sad and difficult time for our entire community,” Lewis said. “We extend our heartfelt condolences to the families of these beloved residents. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families and friends during this difficult time, and our focus continues to be monitoring this situation and implementing all measures that will help ensure the health and safety of our residents and employees.

“We know from our counterparts across the country that COVID-19 can be difficult to contain and highly contagious, and much like our entire country is experiencing, sadly, we are experiencing an uptick in COVID-19 cases following the holiday season,” Lewis continued. “Prior to the season, we took a more stringent approach to mitigating the risk of spread by pausing housekeeping services in our independent living locations and outdoor visits, in addition to a host of protocols that have been in place throughout the pandemic.”

WhiteStone began distributing its first round of vaccines on Tuesday.

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