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UVa officials encourage vaccinations as ICU nears capacity

Intensive care units at the University of Virginia Medical Center are almost full, officials said Friday.

Eighty-six of the hospital’s 93 ICU beds are currently occupied. About one-third of those in the ICU are COVID patients. As of Friday, the medical center had 59 COVID patients, 27 of whom were in the ICU. In mid-August, the medical center was treating 31 COVID patients, and almost half of those were in the ICU.

“It’s a highly dynamic number, but our ICUs are nearing capacity,” Wendy Horton, the chief executive officer of the medical center.

Overall, the medical center has 601 people receiving in-patient care and has about 631 beds total.

With hospitals throughout the region seeing an increase in patients, Horton and other medical center officials said during a media briefing that it’s critical for community members to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“Getting vaccinated and staying ahead of this game is the single most important step that we can take together to relieve that strain on hospitals and to turn the tide,” said Dr. Paul Helgerson, who oversees a team of clinicians at the medical center.

Shots of the vaccine are available from a wide array of sources including doctor’s offices, pharmacies and the health department. For more information and to make an appointment, go to

Statewide, there are currently 378 ICU beds available, and hospital systems are reporting overwhelmed emergency rooms, according to the Virginia Mercury.

In the Blue Ridge Health District, 65.5% of people currently eligible for the vaccine have received at least one dose and 60% are considered fully vaccinated. However, cases, hospitalizations and deaths have increased sharply in the last two months as the more transmissible delta variant took hold and state restrictions were lifted.

So far this month, the health district has reported 15 new deaths, 83 new hospitalizations and 2,713 new cases. Overall, there have been 252 deaths, 859 hospitalizations and 20,66 cases. In terms of new cases, September 2021 is one of the worst months of the pandemic for the district.

UVa has seen an increase in COVID-related hospitalization since the end of July. Currently, the medical center is averaging about eight new hospitalizations a day related to COVID.

Dr. Taison Bell, director of the medical intensive care unit at the medical center, said that 90% of the COVID patients at the medical center overall have not yet received the vaccine. The other 10% is made up of people who are severely immunocompromised or they are older than 65 years old.

“It’s important to state that the vaccines are very very effective,” Bell said. “Your chances of becoming infected with a breakthrough infection after being fully vaccinated are still very low.”

Bell said the pandemic is changing in terms of who is getting infected and having to go to the hospital. Initially, Black and Hispanic people as well as older individuals were more likely end up in the hospital. However, now Bell said the medical center is seeing more younger people.

Additionally, a community effort to vaccinate Hispanic community in Charlottesville and Albemarle has paid off. In Albemarle County, 98% of the eligible Latino community have received at least one dose and 80% in Charlottesville have, according to the health district’s dashboard.

“We have seen an uptick in our demographics of every group coming to the hospital now, but that rise has not been as much in our Hispanic population,” Bell said. “So the nature has actually changed the kinds of patients that we’re seeing and a lot of that reflects the vaccination that we’ve seen in our community.”

Bell reminded community members that the goal of vaccination is not to remain COVID-free but rather to prevent hospitalization and death. Vaccines help by giving the immune system a head start so that when someone is exposed to the virus, the body will know how to respond.

“It’s very hard to completely eradicate disease with vaccines,” Bell said. “The primary goal is to decrease the chance that you’ll get very sick.”

Bell said areas that have overwhelmed health care systems tend to be in areas in which vaccinations rates are low.

“This is the moment where we need to dig in and talk to those who are on the fence and have not been vaccinated yet,” he said. “This is truly an instance where that conversation can lead to a decision that can protect either that person or those around them, and ultimately translate to better care for us all.”

Doing so will help relieve the strain on healthcare systems throughout Virginia, he added.

In the meantime, Helgerson said the medical center is currently able to meet the community’s needs but that’s a balancing act that requires day to day attention.

“There’s a team of folks here that is making sure that we do our best to meet all those needs,” he said. “What we really need is the help of the community and the region to make sure that we work together as a team and that everybody, including the public, engages by getting vaccinated and reducing that demand.”

Horton added that this is one of the hardest parts of the pandemic, from a health care worker perspective.

“If you have health care workers in your life and in your communities, say thank you,” she said. “They’re going through a really hard time and working really hard and they’re doing their very best.”


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