Local expert stresses necessity of COVID vaccination

By Michelle Price
UCBJ Managing Editor

COOKEVILLE – In just over six weeks, the number of patients at Cookeville Regional Medical Center (CRMC) for treatment of COVID has risen from two to 72, and 12 people have died from the illness. Over 90% of those seeking treatment were unvaccinated, and according to CRMC Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Mark Pierce, the vaccine makes all the difference.

“It’s so frustrating and aggravating – you see all these people that should not be in the hospital. Some of them dying. Some of them very ill. They should not be here. They should have been vaccinated; they’d be going about their lives, and everybody’s lives would be going back to normal. It is so frustrating,” Pierce said.

The current surge in COVID patients has CRMC bumping up against its licensure limits.  

See related story: CRMC nearing capacity, ICU full

“It took us until the week of Christmas to get up to 87. We had just two patients here in early July, and we are already up to 72, so that’s a big difference,” said Stephanie Etter, CRMC Infection Control Manager.

“We are out of ICU beds. We have people on the floor who should be in the ICU that can’t go there because we don’t have room for them,” Pierce explained. 

Beds are not the only issue. A shortage of ventilators has caused the hospital to rent additional machines that will get the medical center through the crisis. Now they are just waiting on the machines to be delivered.

“We have people that need ventilators that we can’t put on ventilators right now. And they are essentially all unvaccinated people. Basically, we don’t see anyone with severe disease who has been vaccinated,” explained Pierce. 

The Delta variant has been a game changer. Many of the symptoms are the same as with the original variant, but this disease is spreading faster, attacking younger people and making them much sicker than the original strain.

“We would not have circulation of this variant if everybody was vaccinated. The effect it has would not be near as much,” Pierce said. 

“This Delta variant is easily twice as transmissible as the original variant was,” he added. “We don’t know yet for sure if it causes more severe disease, but clearly younger people are getting sick.”

With the Delta variant, patients have a 1000 times higher viral load, explained Etter.

“That means you have 1000 times the virus in your throat and your nose compared to other variants we have seen in the past, so you are much more likely to spread the virus to others when you sneeze, talk, cough, sing, those kinds of things. You can spread the disease much easier with the Delta so things will spread faster,” Etter added. 

“Vaccinated patients that are coming in now have much milder symptoms than non-vaccinated patients,” shared Dr. Ernest Buchanan.

“We had two people in their 40s die last week,” Pierce said. “We had an otherwise healthy young man at 33 years old that we sent to Vanderbilt to get EMCO. This would not happen if people would get vaccinated.”

Almost all the disease that physicians at CRMC are seeing is in unvaccinated people. 

“In vaccinated people, the disease is rare, and it tends to be mild. The surge we are seeing is clearly from not being vaccinated,” Pierce said. 

Many of the drugs that people have heard about give very modest results according to Pierce. Remdesivir and Chloroquine have not been as effective against the Delta variant as they were against the original virus. The original monoclonal antibody infusions also have shown decreased results.

“Of all the interventions we have, the only thing that makes a big difference is ventilatory support,” said Pierce.

“Most of these people that have serious disease end up on ventilators and a significant number of them die,” he explained. “It’s not like coming in with pneumonia and having an antibody that make you better. It’s not like that at all. 

“It’s more like when someone is dying from influenza pneumonia and you’re doing everything you can to keep them alive and something might make a small difference, but the majority of them go ahead and die.”

Pierce is a firm believer in the vaccine and its ability to protect the recipient.   

“People just need to get vaccinated,” he said. “It is by far their best defense. Recent studies show that people that have had two doses of any vaccine it was over 90% effective against the Delta variant. And with those who have breakthrough cases, it is very mild.”

While many adults are concerned about their children not being able to get the vaccine, Pierce stressed that the focus should be on adults.   

“Children cannot get vaccinated yet, but it still appears that children have much milder disease,” he said. “That is way less important than adults getting vaccinated. You should not rely on your kids to keep you from getting COVID.”

Pierce is passionate about his belief in the vaccinations as a safe and effective means of ending the disease. 

“It’s plain and simple. I don’t care what religious or political background you have or what your beliefs are, if you believe the vaccine is not safe and effective, you have made a bad decision and you are listening to the wrong people. Straight out, that is all there is to it,” he said.

For those who have heard the facts and still refuse the vaccination, Pierce is at a loss.

“I don’t understand how you can make that bad of a decision. It is true, if you are young and healthy, your odds of getting very sick or dying are small but believe me they are real.” 

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