New COVID surge takes a toll on southeastern North Carolina. Here are the numbers

By Sarah Nagem

A new wave of COVID-19 cases is straining hospitals and testing nerves in southeastern North Carolina, where vaccination rates are low and younger people are getting sick. 

Fifty-one COVID patients were hospitalized at UNC Health Southeastern in Robeson County on Monday – just three shy of the record set last November, said Renae Taylor, vice president and chief nurse executive. 

Thirteen of the patients were in the intensive care unit, although the hospital had planned to cap the number at 12. “We don’t have enough staff to cover all the beds that we have,” Taylor said. 

The Border Belt Independent compiled COVID data for four counties in the region: Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland. The numbers paint a bleak picture of a pandemic that clearly isn’t over. 

Here’s what we found. 

Staggering numbers of new cases

Columbus County broke its daily record for new reported cases on Aug. 9, with 129, according to The News Reporter in Whiteville. The previous record was set Nov. 23. 

Bladen County, just to the north, also saw a record high of 66 new reported cases on Aug. 9.  

Mirroring trends across North Carolina and the country, new cases driven by the delta variant have spiked over the past few weeks.

More than 2,000 new cases were reported in Robeson County between July 22 and Aug. 13, according to the county health department. That accounts for nearly 10% of the county’s total reported cases since the start of the pandemic in early 2020.

In Scotland County, 130 new cases were reported the week of Aug. 9, up from 13 the week of July 6, the health department reported.

Hospitals are struggling to keep up

Scotland Health Care System’s ICU in Laurinburg is full, data shows. 

The hospital saw 34 COVID patients and had a total of 104 patients, Greg Wood, president and CEO of the system, told The Laurinburg Exchange late last week.

“These volumes are similar to our peak period of last January and the number of positive patients continues to increase,” Wood told the newspaper. “So far just this month, we have admitted 40 COVID patients and seven have died.”

The Columbus Regional Healthcare System, which is also seeing a surge of new COVID patients, once again put up its overflow tent and expanded to the fourth floor of the hospital, according to The News Reporter

“Obviously, there’s a breaking point when you’re beyond the threshold of being able to care for things,” Jason Beck, chief operating officer, told the newspaper. “The forecasts are not looking favorable.”

Positive tests are above target

Statewide, 12.8% of COVID tests were positive as of Aug. 14, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. 

The figures are even higher in Bladen and Columbus counties, which are both nearing a 19% positivity rate. Robeson County has a rate of 14.6%, according to figures from the state. 

Health experts have long said the target is 5% or below in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Younger people affected

Hospitals are filling up with more young patients during this new wave.

UNC Health Southeastern recently saw a 23-year-old and a 27-year-old, and many others are in their 40s or 50s, Taylor said.

Treating younger people who are severely ill can take an additional toll on medical staff, she said.

“They’re so tired,” Taylor said of hospital employees. “It’s just terrible to see it on their faces. It’s a hard loss. You’re losing patients, and now you’re starting to see these younger ones.” 

In the state’s Southeastern Healthcare Preparedness Region, which includes Bladen, Columbus and other counties to the east, 27% of newly admitted COVID patients are in their 20s, data shows. That compares to 8% statewide.

Unvaccinated people are driving surge

Health officials are urging people to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“We do believe that the best public health tool we have right now is to get the vaccine,” Scotland County Health Director Eli Caldwell said in a weekly update on Aug. 9. “It is too late to be on a ventilator and then ask for the vaccine. At that point, the vaccine cannot help.” 

While the vaccine is not 100% effective in preventing COVID-19, it reduces the risk of severe illness and death, health officials say.

All but one of the 51 COVID patients at UNC Health Southeastern on Monday were unvaccinated, Taylor said.

Vaccination rates in Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties lag behind the statewide rates for every age category. In Robeson, 28% of the population is fully vaccinated, compared to 48% statewide.

Taylor said frustration is mounting among medical providers about the low vaccination rates.

But, she said, “We’ll get through it. We’re going to do what we have to do to take care of our community.” 

The Columbus Regional Healthcare System put up its overflow tent to deal with a new surge of COVID-19 patients.
Photo by Les High