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The Delta Variant And Arkansas' Low Vaccination Rate Fuel COVID-19 Cases

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Arkansas' hospitals are struggling to deal with the surge of new coronavirus cases fueled by the delta variant and low vaccination rates. The state yesterday set a new record for COVID-19 hospitalizations since the pandemic began. Arkansas' health officials say the entire state had only eight open intensive care beds available.

Dr. Cam Patterson serves as the chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. He joins us this morning from Little Rock to talk about this situation. Good morning, Dr. Patterson.

CAM PATTERSON: Good morning, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: So if you'll start by just taking us inside the UAMS Medical Center - what are you and your colleagues dealing with this seemingly rampant surge of COVID right now?

PATTERSON: Well, you know, this is unlike anything that we experienced before during the COVID-19 pandemic. We, in the first wave, had mostly older, sicker individuals who were coming into the hospital. We were never really overwhelmed. Now we have an A-team taking care of patients, but they're tired. Almost half of our patients in the ICUs are in the hospital with COVID-19 complications. We've got four patients on heart-lung bypass because of COVID-19 complications. And the patients are younger. A year ago, our average COVID-19 patient was over 60. Now it's 40. About 20% of our patients have been pregnant moms. We've had moms who've lost their babies because of COVID-19 infections.

ELLIOTT: Oh, heartbreaking.

PATTERSON: And our children's hospital, Arkansas Children's Hospital, rarely had more than one or two COVID-19 patients. Now they've got 22. Over half of those kids are vaccine eligible. None of them had been vaccinated. We've got a 5-week-old baby who's in the hospital with COVID-19 complications.

ELLIOTT: So this has to be something very difficult for your staff to deal with day in and day out. We have been hearing on this program for several weeks now that medical staffing issues are an issue and then just the toll of dealing with the load day in and day out. What's it like for your staff?

PATTERSON: Yeah. You know, both of those issues are problems for us. You know, I heard from a nurse who said that she cries in her car before she comes into work now. We've had nurses walk off in the middle of shifts because they can't take it anymore. About 17% - almost 20% of our nursing positions right now are vacant, so the nurses who are still at the bedside are working harder. They're taking care of more patients than they're used to, and they're just flat worn out.

ELLIOTT: What are you doing to try to alleviate that problem?

PATTERSON: Well, obviously, we're trying to hire more nurses. But we're competing with everybody else because this is, you know, not a unique problem to UAMS. We're supporting them. We're providing them with extra payments to make sure that they feel appreciated. We have a rejuvenation room. We're doing everything that we can to maintain the esprit de corps. You know, one of the challenges that we have, though, is, you know, this is now an avoidable problem. And it's difficult to come into work and to deal with these challenges when you know that there was an antidote to this, the vaccine, that people have chosen not to take. And it's difficult not to become angry.

ELLIOTT: I bet. You know, the country has been dealing with COVID for now a year and a half. As you say, there is an effective COVID vaccine. There are mitigation strategies that have seemed to work. What do you think it is that has us back in a situation where you are overwhelmed like this?

PATTERSON: Well, you know, it's clear that when we first realized that the delta variant was a threat to the United States, that it was a race against time - right? - that we needed to get vaccinated enough so that we would prevent the delta variant from overrunning us. Here in Arkansas, the first case of the delta variant appeared in - May 1. Six weeks later, over 80% of the cases were the delta variant, and now it's, like, 95%. So we lost that battle.

And I think the - you know, vaccine hesitancy obviously is the main reason behind that. But there are multiple reasons why people are hesitant of the vaccine here. African Americans are less likely to get vaccinated than Caucasians. And that's due to a long history of mistrust with the health care system, which is understandable. We're...

ELLIOTT: Right.

PATTERSON: ...A poor state. We're a poor state, relatively undereducated, very rural. Those are the kinds of people who are vaccine hesitant. And then on top of that, there's this whole health care misinformation industry that's really grown up around the vaccine that is so frustrating to deal with.

ELLIOTT: What do you think the answer is to combating all of that?

PATTERSON: Well, you know, we're going to have to do a lot of hand-to-hand combat. We're going to have to work with community partners. Frankly, though, you know, at the end of the day, we know that mandates work. And if we can't have a statewide mandate, then maybe individual industries can do it. And we can do it piece by piece. But you know, getting vaccinated is going to be our off-ramp for COVID-19 here in Arkansas.

ELLIOTT: Dr. Cam Patterson is the chancellor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Thank you so much for your time, and good luck to you and your staff as you deal with this new surge.

PATTERSON: Thank you, Debbie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.