Chatham’s top doc: ‘Don’t be fooled’ by COVID numbers. It’s still a significant threat.

Posted 1/21/21

Compared to other counties across North Carolina, the numbers found on Chatham’s “COVID dashboard” look positive.

But don’t be fooled, says the county’s top physician.

Dr. Andrew C. …

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Chatham’s top doc: ‘Don’t be fooled’ by COVID numbers. It’s still a significant threat.

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Posted

Compared to other counties across North Carolina, the numbers found on Chatham’s “COVID dashboard” look positive.

But don’t be fooled, says the county’s top physician.

Dr. Andrew C. Hannapel, Chatham Hospital’s Chief Medical Officer, tells the News + Record that community spread here is still significant. He’s sounding a warning bell about what he’s seeing at the hospital in terms of COVID admissions, cases among healthcare workers and other indicators related to what he calls “COVID fatigue.”

Dr. Hannapel received his Doctorate of Medicine from George Washington University in 1992. He did his internship and residency at the Womack Army Medical Center Fort Bragg and served in the U.S. Army until 1998, when he joined the Department of Family Medicine at UNC.

Since then, he’s served as faculty for the family medicine residency program, training and teaching medical students, physician assistant students and family medicine residents. In 2016, he became the first Chief Medical Officer at Chatham Hospital. The following year, he began the work that has resulted in a family medicine residency training tract opening June 2019 at the Piedmont Health Services Siler City Community Health Center, and the opening of the Maternity Care Center at Chatham Hospital last month.

Can you give us a brief update about the state of things inside Chatham Hospital as it relates to COVID-19 cases and treatment and vaccinations?

Chatham Hospital is currently caring for many COVID patients. Between 40-50% of our available beds are occupied by COVID patients. We have admissions daily and are transferring the very sick patients to UNC Medical Center. UNC Hospitals continue to support Chatham Hospital and patients from Chatham County. We are grateful for our partnership with UNC Health. This relationship benefits UNC Health, Chatham Hospital and our community.

Community spread of the virus is significant. At Chatham Hospital, we have healthcare workers out with COVID related absences due to both exposures to COVID and COVID infection. Our infection control and occupational health determined that exposures and transmissions of COVID infections occur outside of work, in the community. At Chatham Hospital and UNC Health, healthcare workers are always practicing universal precautions, which is always wearing of both mask AND eyewear, to reduce exposure risk to our healthcare workers and patients. All patients who are admitted receive COVID tests prior to admission.

Vaccination started for Chatham and community heathcare workers (HCWs) in the 1A group on December 16. We have offered the vaccination to all HCWs at Chatham. We have completed the initial two-shot vaccination program for HCWs and last week, starting Jan. 11, we opened the Chatham COVID Vaccine Clinic to the next phase — 1B. Initially all HCWs and people more than 75 years old were in that group. By the end of the week N.C. DHHS had progressed to group 2 — older adults more than 65 years old. We vaccinated 1,250 persons last week. The clinic is expanding and working to handle up to 250/day. Contact/sign up information is below.

To schedule your COVID vaccine (we have the Moderna vaccine) and you are in the over-65 year-old age group (or HCW), you can call 984-215-5485. You can also schedule if you have a UNC MyChart account, or online at yourshot.health or vaccine.unchealthcare.org. At this website you can get up to date information on the vaccine, vaccine locations and schedule your appointment on line (yourshot.health is a link to vaccine.unchealthcare.org).

We really need to get this information out to our Chatham community. On the website listed above, there is valuable information about the vaccine: safety, studies, how it works, testimonials of those who have received the vaccine. It is important for the groups of the historically marginalized — communities of color, Black, Latino, indigenous, and poor — to know that they have an opportunity to receive the vaccine if they choose to do so. There is no cost to get the vaccine! This is how we protect the most vulnerable in our community.

Within the state’s COVID-19 County Alert System, Chatham is one of only four counties designated “yellow,” or the lowest level of viral spread. To what do you think that can be attributed to?

Do not be fooled by that way of presenting the data. (By the way, “yellow” is still indicative of significant community spread.) The county alert system is a combination of three covid metrics: case rate, the percent of tests positive, and hospital impact within the county. Chatham County’s case rate is higher than 500/100,000 population and test positive rate is more than 20%, and Chatham County residents are hospitalized with COVID-19. Other counties have case rates of 800-1,600/100K population. Chatham County has significant amount of COVID infection and community spread. It is going to get worse before it gets better due to the holiday gatherings and COVID fatigue.

Can you explain why the percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive has increased so much recently?

We are seeing an increase in positive COVID-19 PCR tests at our RDC (Respiratory Diagnostic Center). We are testing between 35-55/day and averaging more than a 20% positive rate.

This is due to the increasing community spread. The combination of winter months pushing people inside, families and people coming together in larger groups (Thanksgiving and holiday family events, other group events), COVID fatigue — less masks and physical distancing. All of this is contributing to the increase in community spread.

Can you talk about the flu? Why are we not hearing more about flu cases — and what are you seeing there at the hospital?

Flu is significantly lower in our region and state (and the U.S.). We have not seen any flu cases at Chatham Hospital. We are testing for influenza along with other respiratory illnesses when we test for COVID. We are seeing a small amount of common cold viruses (rhinovirus and adenovirus), and no influenza. I find this remarkable. Healthcare will be changed forever due to this pandemic and not all of the change is bad.

This is due to the wearing of masks, physical distancing, handwashing and most importantly, significantly reduced travel between the southern and northern hemispheres. The southern hemisphere had a 90% reduction in influenza during their winter (our summer, here in the northern hemisphere.) This is remarkable. We are seeing this now but know that our highest influenza incidence is usually in January and February each year.

When we spoke last, in October, three months ago, we talked about potential vaccines and what was at that time the increasing case count (numbers which we’ve seen more than double lately). Looking back on the fall and looking at the situation now, what has surprised (or disappointed) you the most?

I am not disappointed. I am realistic. I know that we are human beings and we want this to be over. We are now able to see how this pandemic will end. We have to do what we know is effective in limiting the spread. I want to encourage everyone to continue with the measures that we know will work — wear a mask, keep your distance and wash your hands. We know that the vaccine will be the way for us to overcome this pandemic.

I am surprised at the vaccine. It was developed and tested in a safe and expeditious way. It is extremely effective — more effective and way better than what we expected. I will say it with one word: HOPE!

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