MCCH vigil nurse

Murray-Calloway County Hospital emergency room nurse Shelly Houston raises one of her hands skyward as she prays during a community vigil last year at the hospital. At that time, MCCH was fearing a major surge of COVID-19 cases, which did eventually happen. However, the past several weeks have provided a desperately-needed break for MCCH personnel.

MURRAY —The first thing medical officials in Murray and Calloway County say when it comes to the sudden and dramatic drop in COVID-19 cases over the past month is “it’s not over.”

Just because daily case numbers have plummeted, from the mid-60s in early January, to one or two, sometimes zero, in the past week or so, does not mean residents can begin thinking they can return to pre-pandemic life. That is exactly the type of behavior on which the coronavirus is counting. 

However, those same officials are marveling at how fast Murray and Calloway County has gone from being totally under the control of the virus to gaining the upper hand. 

“It’s a big change,” said Dr. Bob Hughes, managing partner of Village Medical in Murray, who is also wearing the hat of chief medical officer at Murray State University, the host of a COVID Regional Vaccination Site that had its second session on Sunday. 

“It might be due to the fact that we got quite alarmed by the big numbers we had, particularly around Christmas. People were scared by those numbers and I think that got people a lot more serious about masks adherence and socially-distant adherence, so that’s a big part of it. We’ve also had some weather here lately that’s kept people inside and we’ve got people who’ve had COVID recover, so they should have immunity. Plus, we’re starting to get people vaccinated, so there’s a lot of things that have come into play and it’s just going to get better as you get people vaccinated.”

One of the people probably most happy to see these numbers drop is Murray-Calloway County Hospital CEO Jerry Penner, whose facility has been under enormous pressure because of the virus since the middle of 2020. However, with total COVID admissions at MCCH having dropped to just three patients on Friday, he said the storm of the last several months has significantly decreased in intensity.

That means his staff is getting a badly-needed break.

“The amount of stress that our nursing staff and our clinical staff has been under for, really, the last year has been pretty tough. No doubt, these smaller numbers give us an opportunity to take a breath,” he said. “I think you’re seeing a ray of optimism (with his personnel). Now, you don’t want to get too optimistic, but you certainly want to take advantage of the down time that’s been created, even though that doesn’t mean (the pandemic) is done and that we’re not busy, but it does mean we’re not overwhelmed. 

“We have three (Friday). I think we were probably, in the last two or three weeks, at about eight to 10 and, three weeks prior to that, it was 15 to 18. So it’s been a significant drop.”

The drop in cases is surprising in its speed. On Jan. 7, the Calloway County Health Department’s daily COVID report included the highest amount of new cases in one day — 66. Also, there 235 active cases, 10 of which were for residents who were requiring hospital treatment. Those hospitalizations were only for residents; that did not account for the total at MCCH, which has been treating patients from surrounding counties.

Fast forward to Saturday, when the department’s worksheet showed that only two Calloway residents were being hospitalized because of the virus and there was one new case reported. 

“Honestly, I am surprised how fast this has happened,” said Kim Paschall, the department’s interim director of public health, who is surprised at something else, the timing, in the teeth of winter, when viruses traditionally run rampant.

“I think it’s wonderful, but I was really having a problem believing it when these numbers started going down so fast. In fact, I didn’t believe it. I would unplug the fax (when the numbers arrived from the Kentucky Department of Public Health) because I didn’t think it was working right. Then, I’d unplug it again because I couldn’t see how it could be happening this fast. 

“Yeah, it is odd, because this is a time of year where this kind of thing would usually get worse, not better. But it’s doing this across the state too.”

Statewide, the most obvious indicator of the Kentucky’s progress is the case incidence map the Department of Public Health  has been displaying on its COVID website each day. Since the fall, most of the commonwealth’s 120 counties have been colored in red, which indicates counties with an incidence rate of 25 more or more per 100,000 people. There were some days the map was all red.

In recent days, new colors have appeared, such as orange and yellow and even green, which indicates counties with less than one case per 100,000 people. Calloway was red almost every day from mid-October until two weeks ago, when it returned to yellow, indicating one to 10 cases. 

Sunday it remained yellow with a case incidence of 6.2. 

“I do have a feeling that Kentucky has been doing things a bit differently than other states,” Paschall said. “I think we were stricter with our regulations, particularly early, and I also think we did a good job with contact tracing.”

Hughes said he has been in constant contact with state Public Health Director Dr. Steven Stack and said he has noticed a definite change in Stack’s demeanor during virtual discussions. 

“He’s starting to feel some relief too,” Hughes said, adding that the quick establishment of more than 100 regional vaccination sites throughout the commonwealth probably had the biggest role in easing Stack’s anxiety about Kentucky’s bout with the pandemic. “When we got the one up and running at Murray State (on Feb. 3), at that time, we were one of only eight main vaccination centers in the state, Now, we’re in the hundreds, but he’s done a great job and Kim has done an amazing job on her end and she’s been under a lot of pressure for a lot of reasons.”

However, even though the virus’ grip has weakened, all of the local officials are singing the same tune. Everyone needs to continue to do the things that have been preached from the beginning, wash hands for at least 20 seconds, wear a face mask while in public, stay away from large crowds if possible and, if out in public, stay at least 6 feet from the nearest person.

“The worst thing that can happen right now is for people to start traveling and act like we’re normal again,” Hughes urged. “If you travel to a state where they may have several variants of the virus, and where maybe the vaccine is not as effective against those variants, then you’re running the risk of bringing that back home.”

“I think another thing that’s been a common factor in our explosions has been they have come right after major holidays, so it’s been a while since we’ve had a major holiday,” Penner said. “You don’t throw (days likeValentine’s Day, Mardi Gras and President’s Day) in there with Christmas and New Year’s and Thanksgiving and we’ve seen our spikes after those. But, you couple that with the vaccine coming into our area and I think it gives people a ray of hope that we’re coming out of a pretty tough last year of dealing with the pandemic.

“We’re getting those vaccines in people’s arms. Look at the over-70 crowd, they’re really pleased. You’re seeing a lot of smiles on people’s faces when they get their shots and they’re smiling because they realize they’re doing something to protect themselves and hopefully it’s going to allow them to get out more in this community. They are missing out on socialization pieces.”

Paschall urged everyone who is able to sign up for the vaccine. She also said that it does not matter where they get it, just as long as they get it.

“Actually, if people here find that they can get it faster in another county, we’d encourage to go ahead and sign up there. The only thing is you have to get your second round in the same county you get your first round, so you have to keep that in mind,” she said.  n