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SAMC not experiencing staff shortages during current COVID surge

A surge in recent COVID-19 hospitalizations and emergency department visits at Sentara Albemarle Medical Center has not affected staffing or the quality of care, hospital officials said earlier this week.

SAMC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Donald Bowling said at times over the past several weeks that COVID patients have helped fill almost all of hospital’s in-patient beds. Almost one-third of those beds are confirmed COVID patients, and about 90 percent are unvaccinated.

The COVID surge at SAMC has also led to a 30-percent increase in emergency department visits, which now average around 150 a day.

Despite the surge, Bowling said the hospital continues to treat patients at a high level.

“We are ensuring patients get a high level of care regardless of where they are being taken care of in the hospital,” Bowling said.

Few hospital staff have left during the current surge but Bowling said staff are feeling the strain of treating additional patients.

“The staff is fatigued,” Bowling said.

Bowling said he noticed more staff departures at the start of the pandemic.

“They decided they did not want to take the personal risk, and they left us during the first surge,” Bowling said. “We lost some people to retirement. They may have been thinking about retirement and they said, ‘This is the time.’”

SAMC is especially targeting College of The Albemarle nursing graduates in its recruiting efforts, which have stepped up since the pandemic began.

“A lot of them have come off orientation, which has greatly helped us,” Bowling said.

SAMC Respiratory Care Team Coordinator Laurie Duncan said the respiratory staff has taken on extra shifts, sometimes five 12-hour shifts a week. She said that none of her staff of 13 have left during the pandemic.

“My department has really stepped up to the plate,” Duncan said. “I have staff rotate to other Sentara facilities to help out there.”

SAMC Director of Patient Care Services Glen Needham said in some cases hospital staff are providing treatment for friends and neighbors during the surge.

“They may be tired, but they are dedicated,” Needham said. “They are taking care of their fellow church members, their friend’s family members.”

The recent surge has not greatly affected other procedures. In fact, SAMC officials said the hospital’s surgery volume has “grown the last few months.”

At the start of the pandemic, SAMC put off some elective surgeries because of a lack of personal protection equipment, like surgical masks and gowns.

“We were worried that we would not have enough surgical masks to go around,” Bowling said. “Now, patients are coming in and continuing to get elective surgeries.”

Needham said just a couple elective surgeries have been postponed during the current surge because those patients would have required post-op care in the ICU, where there are 10 beds. He also encouraged patients not to put off preventative screenings.

“We need them to get their mammograms, their colonoscopies,” Needham said. “Those things are going to impact our health outcomes in our community a couple years down the road.”

Bowling said getting the COVID vaccine will greatly lessen the chances of a person requiring a hospital stay if they contract the deadly disease.

“The vaccine is not perfect by any means,” Bowling said. “You can still get COVID if you have had it (vaccine). But the disease is less severe.’’

More than 40,000 people in the immediate region have received the vaccine and Needham said only two have come to the hospital because of an adverse reaction to the shot.

Bowling said that if 80 to 90 percent of eligible people were vaccinated it is likely that “we would not be seeing COVID in this region.”

“We would be reaching the level of near herd immunity,” Bowling said.

Public health officials have said previously that roughly 70-80 percent of the population would need to get the vaccine before COVID cases start decreasing. That’s because the virus that causes the disease couldn’t be transmitted as easily as it is now.

Hospital officials understand the hesitancy to get a COVID vaccine and urged people to consult their health provider about the effectiveness of the vaccine.

SAMC ICU Unit Coordinator Liz Assaid acknowledges that she, too, was hesitant at first about getting the vaccine when it first became available. She’s since received the shot.

“You don’t just trust everything that comes right out, you have to do your research,” Assaid said. “But my husband went through triple bypass surgery and it hit me really hard, he can’t get COVID. I’m not only risking myself, but I am risking my family. I don’t want to see them get sick.”

Stopping an overdose death

Jerry Newell, director of Pasquotank-Camden Emergency Medical Services, provides residents training on how to administer the drug Narcan to an overdose victim, at American Legion Post 223 on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, Wednesday evening. Vertex South, the nonprofit that sponsored the Narcan Training Community Awareness Night, gave away Narcan kits to attendees afterward.

Benjamin House annual talent show available online Saturday

Residents at the Benjamin House have cooked up something extra for this year’s talent show.

This Saturday marks the second consecutive year the Benjamin House will hold its crowd-pleasing talent show online because of COVID-19. The theme for this year’s show is “Fun, Friends and Family.” The show is scheduled to run about 40 minutes and will be posted online at 2 p.m. Saturday.

Past shows have always featured Benjamin House residents performing song and dance routines, said Ann Hughes, who along with her husband Lennie founded the live-in residence for mentally challenged adults. The couple established Benjamin House several years ago to ensure their son Benjamin, who is autistic, has a place to live after they are gone.

In addition to singing and dancing, this year’s show will feature residents sharing their favorite recipes.

“Part of our talent show is cooking,” Hughes said.

In the last year and a half, the residents have not been able to spend as much time in the community, such as taking trips to Walmart, because of COVID-19 concerns. While they do participate in many outdoor activities at the Benjamin House, one indoor activity the residents began doing more of is cooking, Hughes explained.

The idea to incorporate cooking into the talent show arose from the cooking knowledge the residents have learned. Plus, they enjoy watching cooking shows on TV, Hughes said. That’s when a staff member suggested the residents do their own cooking show.

“That kind of sparked the idea,” Hughes said.

Part of the residents’ learning process included searching for recipes on their laptops, which each of the six residents has been issued, and deciding on a dish. With assistance from a staff member, the residents wrote a list of ingredients they needed and staff went shopping.

The talent show will be posted at the Benjamin House Facebook page and YouTube channel at 2 p.m. Saturday. On Facebook, search The Benjamin House and at YouTube search Benjamin House. A sneak preview of the talent show is online now and can be viewed at YouTube at youtube.com/watch?v=MzL0ifAVZ-o.

This year’s talent show was filmed in segments throughout the month of July by videographer Dave Lacasse, Hughes said.

“They had so much fun filming,” she said, adding the video was filmed using a green screen for added background effects.

“We had a lot of fun,” Hughes said.

Hughes said the residents’ lives were changed because of the pandemic. The “fabulous staff” worked hard to come up with ways to keep the residents busy, since their travel outside the home was restricted. The residents are allowed to leave to go visit their family, Hughes said. When they return from visiting family they must wear their mask for 10 days. They aren’t required to wear their masks while in their individual private rooms.

The Benjamin House held a COVID-19 vaccination clinic and all residents and staff have been vaccinated, Hughes said.

This year’s show should run about 40 minutes and will again feature the Rev. Toni Wood as mistress of ceremonies.

Board meets amid teacher backlash against virtual plan

The Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Board of Education held an emergency meeting Thursday evening amid backlash from teachers over a plan to make virtual instruction an option for all students.

The proposal as submitted to members of the ECPPS Board of Education’s Personalized Education Committee meeting Monday would make a “live link” available for virtual students to allow them to watch instruction being offered in-person in the classroom.

Amy Spencer, the district’s chief academic officer, said the district would not be asking teachers to teach both in-person and virtual students simultaneously. The live link would not be interactive; it would only allow students access to the teacher’s direct instruction being provided in the classroom.

Spencer told the committee that ECPPS staff want to hire two to three teachers at each elementary grade level to provide follow-up to those students learning virtually after hours.

Before agreeing to move forward with the proposal, school board members said they first wanted to hear what principals and teachers think of it. Spencer said district officials would meet with teachers and principals this week to discuss the plan.

Virtual meetings were held for secondary and elementary teachers and principals Wednesday evening. The Daily Advance did not learn of the forums until Thursday and did not view the sessions, but school board members who watched online reported significant opposition to the plan among teachers.

School board member Daniel Spence said teachers showed little confidence in the proposed plan.

“The very strong consensus was that the teachers do not like the plan that was presented,” he said.

Spence said teachers talked about how they feel the plan would require them to perform dual work, as they did last school year, and they don’t want to do that again.

“They were very adamant about that,” Spence said.

Board member George Archuleta watched the meeting for secondary grades teachers and principals. He also reported that teachers who participated in the meeting seemed unhappy with the plan.

The board’s emergency meeting began at 7 p.m. Thursday and was held after the deadline for Friday’s edition.

Alcocer leaving COA Foundation for insurance firm

The director of the College of The Albemarle Foundation is leaving to return to the insurance industry.

Amy Alcocer will be joining the G.R. Little Agency where she will work as a commercial lines producer for the company, a press release states.

“I am excited to return to the insurance industry and I look forward to serving the community that I so love,” Alcocer said in the release Wednesday.

According to the release, the COA Foundation’s assets grew from $8.7 million to $11.9 million during Alcocer’s tenure as executive director.

“The COA Foundation Board hated to lose Amy Alcocer as its executive director, but we certainly wish her every success in her future endeavors,” Kathy Stallings, chairwoman of the COA Foundation said in a statement Thursday. “We are thankful for the time she spent helping the college and the COA Foundation move forward.”

In addition to her work at the COA Foundation, Alcocer also has worked as events coordinator for the Elizabeth City Area Chamber of Commerce and as a commercial lines producer for five years with two other regional insurance agencies.

According to Stallings, the search for the COA Foundation’s next executive director is underway.

“We hope to have a replacement in place as soon as possible,” she said. “In the interim, David Shufflebarger is providing leadership and helping the college and foundation evaluate current and future opportunities.”

Shufflebarger, a resident of Nags Head, is a senior partner with Alexander Hass, Inc., an Atlanta-based consulting firm that helps nonprofits with fundraising.

According to COA, Shuffflebarger volunteered to assist the foundation with its fundraising efforts when it launched its current capital campaign. He has also agreed to serve as interim executive director while the foundation searches for Alcocer’s successor.