MYRTLE BEACH — Amid the hope of multiple vaccines now being distributed, area hospitals were offered a sobering dose of reality as the calendar turned to 2021 over the weekend.
Tidelands Health, which operates the Waccamaw Community Hospital and Georgetown Memorial Hospital, reported 80 COVID-19 inpatients on Sunday, a new record for the medical outlet.
On Monday, the hospitals along the Grand Strand set a new mark for concurrent COVID-19 hospitalizations with 246 — the same day the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control announced 208 new cases in Horry County and 19 in Georgetown County.
“December has definitely been worse than July,” said Gayle Resetar, chief operating officer with Tidelands Health. “We did hit higher number of hospitalizations; we definitely had a holiday that caused a spike in volume. We thought we had something in control, but now probably all of December and January, we are going to be at peak numbers.”
Statistically, December trailed only July in number of new cases in Horry County, while Georgetown County saw its numbers more than double month over month.
Horry County saw 4,234 cases, averaging 136.6 new cases per day; in Georgetown County, there were 663 new cases, or an average of 21.4 per day.
In all other categories, December was decidedly worse when it came to combating the virus.
Here is a look at some key Horry County numbers during December, according to DHEC:
- 28: Number of days that the county had triple-digit new cases, with the previous high in July at 22.
- 22.5 percent: The positive test rate in Horry County (32,461 tests), surpassing the previous high of 21 percent in July (31,954 tests). November was 13.9 percent.
- 28.4 percent: The positive test rate in Horry County over the last week of 2020.
- 715 per 100,000: The incidence rate in Horry County to end the month. DHEC considers “high” incidence rate to start at 200.
- 51: Number of deaths in December, representing 15.3 percent of those in the county to date.
The numbers tell only part of the story, according to Dr. Paul Richardson, vice president of medical affairs at Conway Medical Center.
The emotional toll of a month like December cannot be quantified, Richardson said.
“It’s been rough,” Richardson said. “It’s been exhausting. Numerically we’ve had a lot of COVID patients, and we’ve had a fair share of tragic deaths. It’s been real emotional for the staff.
“We’ve been at this almost a year. These peaks don’t get any easier.”
Compounding the issue is that the rise in cases comes at a time when hospitals along the Grand Strand are thin on health care workers.
Tidelands, which is at 105 percent hospital capacity and 110 percent ICU occupancy as of Monday, had utilized nursing agencies that brought in staffers from around the country during the summer months and into the fall.
But as other states saw spikes in October and November, Tidelands lost some of that help, and the holidays make it more difficult to meet staffing goals due to personal time off that nurses schedule in advance.
As a result, Tidelands has had to put administrative nurses back at the bedside, as one strategy to help cope with the shortages.
“The resources are thin, it’s challenging for the entire Grand Strand,” Resetar said. “It’s busy like this everywhere now.”
The domino effect of rising COVID-19 inpatients and stretched staffing resulted in Tidelands rescheduling multiple scheduled inpatient surgeries on Monday, the first time it had to do so in months.
Resetar indicated that each surgery that is delayed is put into a physician-review and case-by-case process, allowing Tidelands to stay committed to surgeries that cannot be moved back.
Delaying any weighed heavily on the Tidelands staff. “It’s tough, because it’s just pushing challenges down the road,” Resetar said.
For both Resetar and Richardson, the idea of COVID-19 fatigue is something they help fight daily, with both their staffs and the general public.
But they are bothered more by the people who have been directly impacted by the virus and their continued disregard for safe health practices put forth by DHEC and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
“Such an incredible debate about masking, and it is really sad. It’s much better to just do it because it’s the right thing, and not some regulatory mandate to do it,” Resetar said. “And to change their practice, whether it was required or not required by some government agency. It’s discouraging.”
Richardson is shocked that the virus’ impact on daily life hasn’t spurred a cumulative push to defeat it.
“Sort of stuns me that people, at this point, know someone who had it and a lot of folks probably know someone that has died from it. I’m kind of surprised that people are regressing,” Richardson said.
“You think it would strengthen everyone’s resolve, but it hasn’t seemed to have done that.”