Published on January 03, 2021

Telegram Story: 2020 Healthcare in Review

Originally published in the Rocky Mount Telegram

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the lives of local residents for most of 2020 and likely will affect their lives well into 2021.

“The impact COVID-19 has had on the world and in our local community has been tremendous and something that we never expected at this time a year ago,” Nash UNC Health Care President and CEO Lee Isley said in a recent interview. “At the start of 2020, we were faced with preparing for a pandemic with many unknowns.”

Local coverage of COVID-19 began as early as Feb. 19, 2020, when the Telegram reported growing concerns about the virus that was then primarily affecting mainland China. At that time, Gov. Roy Cooper set up a task force to keep tabs on the pandemic after President Donald Trump set up a similar task force at the end of January.

On March 2, the Telegram reported that the first United States resident had died from the novel coronavirus. No cases of COVID-19 had yet been reported in North Carolina.

On March 10, Cooper declared a state of emergency regarding COVID-19 in Executive Order 116. By the end of the year, he had issued 68 additional executive orders, most of which concerned the pandemic and affected the lives of Twin Counties residents in some way.

By March 11, two cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in North Carolina.

Though no cases of COVID-19 had been reported in the Twin Counties, on March 13, local health and hospital officials spoke out about the issue as the City of Rocky Mount declared a state of emergency because of the expected effects.

The next day, March 14, Gov. Roy Cooper announced that all public schools in the state would be closed for two weeks. Schools then were opened to remote learning, but area classrooms were closed for the rest of the school year. Most area students did not see the inside of a classroom for the rest of the year. Local colleges also changed to remote learning.

On March 15, Nash UNC Health Care began upgrading its visitation protocols after the spouse of a staff member tested positive for COVID-19. These protocols became more intense throughout the year as the number of cases escalated across the area.

The first positive case of COVID-19 in Nash County was reported on March 20 by the Nash County Health Department. By that time, 137 cases had been reported in the state, but no deaths had occurred.

Cooper issued Executive Order 121 on March 27, effectively shutting down the state for two weeks to “flatten the curve.” This was the beginning of a several-month period that placed many people out of work. Many of those jobs still have not been fully returned.

The Edgecombe County Health Department reported its first COVID-19 case on March 28.

The first COVID-related fatalities in the Twin Counties were reported on April 8. The Nash County Heath Department and the Edgecombe County Health Department said each county had lost a resident to COVID-related causes on April 7.

Cooper moved the state into a modified Phase 2 of recovery on May 19. At that time, Nash County had 163 cumulative cases of the virus and three Nash County residents had died. Edgecombe County had 173 confirmed cases and eight deaths.

By June, nursing homes in the area had begun to see outbreaks of COVID-19, resulting in many cases and multiple deaths by the end of the year.

In mid-July, local school districts had to decide whether to reopen the school year with remote learning or adopt “Plan B,” which would allow limited classroom instruction under a variety of new rules and regulations. Both the Nash County and Edgecombe County school districts opened in August with remote learning.

By October, some preschool and elementary classrooms reopened for classroom instruction as students attended for alternating weeks.

By the end of December, middle school and high school students in both Nash County Public Schools and Edgecombe County Public Schools still were learning remotely. Secondary-level Edgecombe County students are expected to return to the classroom on alternating weeks beginning later this month. Because of the growing number of COVID cases, all Nash County students will be returning to remote learning until at least Jan. 23.

Nash UNC Health Care took a step forward in the care of COVID patients with the creation of a new specialized COVID unit in July. At a price tag of $1.3 million, the new COVID unit was designed to meet the needs of medically stable COVID patients.

COVID-19 cases spiked in August. By Aug. 11, Edgecombe County had reported 656 cases and 12 deaths. Another 1,203 Nash County residents had tested positive for COVID-19 and 13 Nash County residents had died.

By Oct. 17, Nash and Edgecombe counties set new records for confirmed cases of COVID-19. Nash County had a cumulative total of 3,092 cases. Seven Nash County deaths were reported that week and 59 Nash County residents had died of COVID-related causes. The Edgecombe County Health Department reported a total of 1,730 cumulative positive cases of COVID-19, of which 59 people had died.

On Dec. 18, the Telegram reported that the state-run Nash Correctional Institute had the dubious honor of having more active cases of COVID-19 than any other prison in the state. At that time, 149 of the roughly 620 inmates had tested positive and one had died.

The COVID-19 vaccine arrived at Nash UNC Health Care in mid-December and front-line employees there were vaccinated. The Nash County Health Department began vaccinating its employees and other county front-line workers Wednesday with the first of the two-shot vaccination.

The year ended with nearly 9,151 confirmed cases of COVID-19 reported in the Twin Counties and 210 COVID-related deaths.

As of Dec. 31, the Edgecombe County Health Department reported a cumulative total of 3,183 cases. Of that number, 89 people have died.

As of Dec. 29, the Nash County Health Department had reported 5,968 cumulative cases of COVID-19 and 121 deaths.

“This pandemic has really strained the health care delivery system, including the Nash County Health Department. It has been a challenge to continue to provide routine health services for our citizens at the same time we have endured a pandemic,” Nash County Health Director Bill Hill said in a recent interview. “During such a crisis, people and organizations tend to unite and this has been the case here in Nash County in confronting this virus. We are all in it together and our citizens are depending on us in health care for guidance and treatment when it becomes necessary. This is why we are all here.”

Isley said he is proud of the work his team has done during the year of health care challenges.

“I am proud to say that even through this challenging year, we have had many positive events happen at Nash UNC,” he said. “We welcomed more than 20 new medical staff members to our team this year, expanding the range of health care services we can offer our community. Along with that, we have opened a new general surgery practice, moved the orthopedics practice into a newly renovated building, opened an infectious disease clinic, participated in investigational studies for COVID-19, renovated the second floor to be a long-term COVID-19 unit and maintained the highest level of quality patient care to earn a Grade A from The Leapfrog Group. All in all, this year has taught us to appreciate and support one another, to work together as a team and what the true strength of community can do when faced with adversity.”

Isley said Nash UNC Health Care plans to adapt to the challenges in the year ahead as the pandemic continues.

“We will continue to expand health care services to best serve the community’s health care needs, while continuing to improve the patient experience and quality of care. We will continue to work with UNC Health, local and state health departments and the CDC to update our policies, processes and guidelines based on the latest recommendations to ensure the safety of our patients, staff, visitors and community,” Isley said.

Hill said area residents still need to remain vigilant even though 2020 has ended and the vaccine hopefully will be available to the general public in the next few weeks or months.

“The new year should ring in a new wave of health care delivery with our upcoming vaccination campaign,” he said. “We look forward to promoting this effort and defeating this virus, which we will do. Of course, we will need citizen receptivity and participation in order to meet this challenge.

“However, the mutation of this virus strain and the advent of other viruses still concern me, as we look across the Atlantic to what’s going on in the UK,” he added.

Nash County Manager Zee Lamb said that combatting the pandemic will continue throughout the new year.

“Despite county, state and federal government efforts, the virus has taken its toll on Nash County residents. On a personal level, I knew at least two persons here in the county, who but for the virus, would be with us today,” he said. “On a positive note, our own corporate citizen Pfizer has helped lead the effort towards a vaccine that gives hope to our residents. Once our health workers and nursing home and assisted living facility residents receive the vaccine, in 2021 our focus must be providing the vaccine to persons over 65 years old and eventually to all willing residents.”

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