Due to the mushrooming spread of the delta variant of COVID-19 and an outbreak of the virus among several of their own workers, Tallahatchie General Hospital and Extended Care Facility in Charleston have implemented new safety protocols and reinstated others.
Effective at 5 p.m. Friday, July 23, the hospital suspended all visitation, while the nursing home is restricting visitation to designated family members during certain hours, for a maximum of one hour at a time, according to TGH Chief Operating Officer Buddy McRae.
» With the exception of the most critical cases, the TGH emergency room is again prescreening all patients for COVID before allowing entry.
» All unvaccinated employees of the hospital and nursing home are required to wear an N95 face mask while in any patient care area.
» Weekly COVID-19 testing of all employees is being reinstituted.
"What we are trying to do is to apply what we've learned in the past 18 months," said McRae. "We want to get ahead of it this time."
For now, McRae said no restrictions have been imposed at the Charleston Clinic or James C. Kennedy Wellness Center, both part of the TGH campus.
This is the second suspension of public visitation at the county hospital since the pandemic began.
TGH-ECF first stopped allowing visitors on March 18, 2020, mere days before the Mississippi State Department of Health reported the first positive case of COVID-19 in Tallahatchie County on March 23.
Despite that action, and other safety measures aimed at holding the virus at bay, 50 residents of the nursing home and numerous employees of the hospital and nursing home were infected. Seven ECF residents died.
When the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines became available in December, health care professionals and residents of long-term care facilities, such as ECF, were among the first people eligible to receive them.
McRae said only "a handful" of the 72 Charleston nursing home residents remain unvaccinated today. A couple of those were advised against vaccination due to having certain underlying health conditions, he added.
"As of late [Thursday, July 22], we did not have a resident who had tested positive," McRae noted. "Believe you me, we're watching it."
Routine weekly testing of employees was stopped several months ago, he explained, "when everything kind of cooled down ... and we were never getting a positive."
After an extended period of time having no TGH employees test positive for the virus, McRae said five have tested positive "just in the last four days."
"Two were in the ECF, one was in dietary and two were in the billing office," he noted. "It's not just one place, and that's what concerns us. You keep hearing that delta is so easily transmissible, and we've gone from no positive employees anywhere to five ... in different departments testing positive."
While declining to cite the percentage of TGH employees who have not been vaccinated, McRae said the figure is in line with the national average. Nationally, about 52% of frontline health care workers had been vaccinated by the end of March, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and The Washington Post.
When asked, McRae noted that a couple of the local workers testing positive this week had been fully vaccinated before contracting the delta variant. He stressed that neither has had "any substantial symptoms." One got tested after being exposed to the virus off-site and then started running a fever, he explained.
In its daily update Friday, MSDH reported 1,317 new cases of COVID-19 statewide — the greatest single-day total since Jan. 30, when there were 1,528.
A total of 503 Mississippians were hospitalized with the illness as of Friday. Of those, 165 were in intensive care units and 65 were on ventilators.
McRae said the statistics continue to bear out the efficacy of the vaccines.
"Of the 500-some-odd people who are in the hospital right now with COVID, more than 80% of them were not vaccinated," McRae said. "That tells you how effective [the vaccine] is."
To those who would question why they should get vaccinated if they still might get the virus, McRae noted that the COVID vaccine is similar to the flu vaccine in one critical respect.
"Anybody who's ever gotten the flu vaccine knows, you can get the flu vaccine and still get the flu. But if you've gotten the vaccine, your symptoms are going to tend to be way milder than they would be if you had not gotten the vaccine," he said.
MSDH reported Friday that only 28% of the residents of Tallahatchie County are fully vaccinated. Statewide, just 32% have been inoculated.
McRae said TGH continues to offer the Moderna vaccine to the public one day a week, usually on Wednesday but sometimes Thursday or Friday, on an appointment-only basis.
"It is free, it's available to the public, and we do it only one day a week because the vaccine is frozen and we have to get a headcount to know how much to thaw out," McRae stated. "If we had the demand for it, we would do it all day, five days a week."
He said about 20 people make appointments to be vaccinated locally each week.
Anyone interested in getting the Moderna vaccine may make an appointment by dialing the TGH one-call number at 662-647-8000.
McRae offers vaccine skeptics a sobering message.
"When people say to me, 'Well, I'm just not sure if I can trust the vaccine,' my response is, well, then, let's see how much you trust the virus, because you're going to get it if you don't get vaccinated. So you can either trust the vaccine or the virus. The vaccine is not going to kill you; the virus might."
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that all visitation at the Extended Care Facility had been suspended.