By Sarah Nagem
The COVID-19 death toll so far in August is higher than it has been in several months in parts of southeastern North Carolina, where cases are rising and hospitals are struggling to keep up.
Forty people died of COVID in Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties between Aug. 1 and Aug. 26, according to data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
That’s up from a total of 26 in July and 13 in June, data shows.
In Robeson, which has the largest population among the four counties, 18 people have died of COVID so far this month, according to the state.
The Robeson County Health Department said Tuesday the number is higher, with 35 deaths. (On its website, DHHS says it can sometimes take days for new deaths to be recorded.) Thirty-five is only two fewer than the record-high number of COVID deaths the county saw in December.
In Columbus County, eight people died of COVID in a four-day period last week, according to the state.
COVID deaths across North Carolina are increasing with the more-contagious delta variant, reaching the highest levels since last winter. Health officials are encouraging people across the state to get the COVID vaccine to reduce the chances of getting seriously ill or dying from the virus.
In a report released Thursday, DHHS said unvaccinated people in North Carolina were about 15 times more likely to to die from COVID-19 during the four weeks leading up to Aug. 21.
“The vast majority of people dying with COVID-19 are unvaccinated,” DHHS secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen said in a statement. “If you are not vaccinated please don’t wait until it is too late. The authorized and approved vaccines have been through rigorous clinical trials and met scientific standards. Millions of North Carolinians have been safely vaccinated.”
Densil Worthington, who runs Worthington Funeral Home in Columbus County, also wants people to get the vaccine.
During the height of the pandemic last winter, he said, his business handled three or four funerals a month for people who died of COVID. Lately, he’s been handling at least three every two weeks.
“It’s back on the move,” he said of COVID.
Worthington said it’s frustrating to see so many people dying of the virus once again, especially younger people and those who did not get vaccinated.
Fourteen of the 35 deaths recorded so far this month in Robeson County were of people in their 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s, the health department said.
Statewide, 29 unvaccinated people under the age of 65 died of COVID during the four weeks leading up to Aug. 21, DHHS said. One vaccinated person in that age group died during that time period, according to the agency.
Strain on hospitals
Health care officials say hospitals are filling up as more people, mostly those who have not been vaccinated, are getting sick with COVID.
“We are in a new era for this pandemic, and we will continue to see an increase in hospitalizations, an increase in emergency visits,” Scotland County Health Director Eli Caldwell said in a weekly message Aug. 23. “And a good number of those who seek care at the ER are those people who do not have the vaccine, are not fully vaccinated.”
The COVID unit is full at UNC Health Southeastern in Lumberton, and there are no more critical care beds available, Joann Anderson, the hospital’s president and CEO, told WRAL on Thursday.
Anderson said larger hospitals, including those in Raleigh, are also reaching capacity, so there is nowhere to send local COVID patients.
The hospital system said Friday it has 47 COVID patients, and all but four are unvaccinated. All of the COVID patients in the intensive care unit and on ventilators are unvaccinated, according to the hospital.
Some COVID patients are asking for the vaccine right before they get intubated, Anderson told WRAL. “The answer is no,” she said. “It’s too late at that point in time.”
Four of the nine critical care unit beds at Columbus Regional Healthcare System were occupied Friday, said Stephanie Miller, physician and community services coordinator.
Like many hospitals, Columbus Regional in Whiteville is dealing with a staff shortage, Miller said in an email.
"Thankfully we’ve been able to hire travel nurses and respiratory therapists to help with our increasing volumes," she said.
Low vaccination rates
Robeson County has the lowest vaccination rate in the state, at 29%.
The rates also lag in surrounding counties: 34% in Columbus, 38% in Bladen and 40% in Scotland. The statewide rate is 49%.
Bladen County recorded 11 deaths in July, compared to eight so far in August. It’s unclear if July’s total is related to an outbreak identified in June in the Bladenboro area.
The county saw no COVID deaths in April and one in May.
Columbus County has recorded 11 deaths so far in August, up from six in July and two in June. The highest death toll was recorded in February, with 23.
Scotland County has seen five deaths so far this month, compared to a total of six in the previous three months, data shows.
Worthington, who has run his family’s funeral home for 46 years, said he’s hoping COVID deaths will go back down. The funeral business hasn’t dealt with a situation like this in decades, he said.
“The closest that we’ve seen to this is AIDS,” he said, adding that it wasn’t as widespread in southeastern North Carolina. “That’s the scenario that would come close to even touching this.”