‘My Fear Is Running Out of ICU Beds’

 October is shaping up to be one of the deadliest months of the COVID-19 pandemic in Franklin County yet, according to data from the county’s health department. 

The most recent death was an 86-year-old Washington man. He is the sixth death reported this week and the 12th one this month. He is the 42nd Franklin County resident to succumb to the virus since March.

When asked about the increased number of deaths this month, Franklin County Presiding Commissioner Tim Brinker — who serves as the public information officer for the county regarding the pandemic — said the number of deaths being reported is skewed as some of the deaths happened in previous months and are just now being tallied. 

The number of active cases tied to long-term care facilities is at 51, which includes residents and staff, and tops the previous all-time high of 47 set Oct. 20.

Paula Hanson, director of nursing at Cedarcrest Manor, said the facility has some cases but that she is not authorized to give the number. 

Laura Volkerding, director of nursing at Grandview Healthcare Center, reported there has not been a surge in cases at the facility. 

Attempts to reach officials at Victorian Place of Washington Senior Living were unsuccessful.

Brinker said he also could not confirm which long-term care facilities were experiencing outbreaks at this time.

Meanwhile, health care workers are feeling the impact.

“I have a lot of experience in the ICU, but no experience compares to this,” said Aleca Palmisano, an ICU nurse who has worked in critical care since 1994 and at Mercy Hospital Washington since 2012. She said caring for one to three COVID-19-positive patients for 12- to 14-hour shifts, four or five times each week, has taken an emotional toll on her. 

“I watched (patients go from) not feeling well to being placed on oxygen to some being put on ventilators,” she said. “I watched their lives end. It is absolutely heartbreaking.”

Katie Taylor, another Mercy ICU nurse who has been in health care 35 years and in the ICU 34 years, said there has been a notable change in the atmosphere of the ICU.

“As nurses, we try to incorporate happiness into our work, and now it’s a lot of tears because people die every day of COVID,” Taylor said. 

Taylor’s duties include overseeing the ICU floor and supporting the other nurses. She and her colleagues are frequently skipping meals and breaks to keep up with the suffering patients. 

Mercy ICU typically has 13 beds, but the unit recently was expanded to 19 beds. Per Taylor, there are eight to 12 COVID-19 patients in the wing at any given time, and most stay longer than typical ICU patients, some as long as two weeks or more.

The patients aren’t all from Franklin County. Other area hospitals who lack the space to form a coronavirus wing are transferring their COVID-19-positive patients to Mercy. 

“I have seen people transported from 2 1/2 hours away to our hospital,” Taylor said. “That is something I have never seen in my career ...  My fear is running out of ICU beds, because someone could have a heart attack, stroke or be in an accident and need one, and they’re full (with COVID-19 patients).”

Palmisano said the impact patients’ deaths have on the ICU staff has become more intense due to visiting restrictions, so the workers are often the only people allowed into the room with the patient. 

“You become their family in a way,” Palmisano said. “We do everything we can. We help them FaceTime their families, and sometimes their family members sit outside the glass doors and wave to them.”

ICU physician Ashok Palagiri said the ICU rooms also are geared with video and audio equipment that allows patients to communicate with medical staff more easily to help lessen their feelings of loneliness.

It is the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions who Palagiri said he worries about the most and who the public needs to protect. 

“This is our calling, we are here to serve the patients when they are at their worst,” he said. “But we need the public to work alongside that same plan.”

Social distancing, wearing masks and handwashing, Palagiri said will help health care and community members down the road.

“This virus is real, it is not going to go away, it’s not going to disappear when the election is over,” Palmisano said. “This is worldwide and it’s our personal responsibility to protect ourselves and others from it.” 

Franklin County has seen 2,535 COVID-19 cases since March. 

Friday, the county reported 36 new cases, with a 10-day rolling total of new COVID-19 cases at 366, and the testing positivity rate over the last 14 days at 8.99 percent.

Of those Franklin County residents testing positive this week, the majority were women, who accounted for 81 of the county’s 138 new cases. The largest age demographic reporting positive tests results, with 29 new cases, were people in their 20s. 

The Missourian’s Laura Miserez contributed to this story.