WellStar West Georgia president concerned about vaccination rate

Published 11:05 am Wednesday, May 12, 2021

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Wellstar West Georgia Medical Center President Coleman Foss said the hospital has seen a large decrease in the number of COVID-19 patients its seeing, but he remains concerned about Troup County’s low vaccination rate.

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Foss and Dr. Danny Branstetter, medical director at Wellstar Health System, spoke with The LaGrange Daily News on Thursday about the state of COVID-19 in Troup County and around the state.

Foss said WGMC is typically averaging about eight to ten people in the hospital with COVID-19 at a time right now. That’s a far cry from the hospital’s high, when 83 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 and another 17 patients were under investigation as possible coronavirus patients.

“There was a time when easily well over 70 to 80 percent of the patients that were in the hospital were COVID related,” Foss said.

One topic covered during the call was people who are reluctant to get the COVID-19 vaccine. As of Friday, 17 percent of Troup County was fully vaccinated — which puts Troup County in the lower half of the state of Georgia in percentage of fully vaccinated residents.

Branstetter said two groups notable for their vaccine hesitancy are pregnant people and men over 50. Foss suspects that a lot of vaccine hesitancy at his hospital is due to female employees’ concerns about the effects of COVID-19 vaccines on pregnancies.

But Branstetter said that not only is it safe and important for both groups to get vaccinated; when pregnant or breastfeeding people get vaccinated, they can pass on protective antibodies to their babies.

“Antibodies are what protects us,” he said. “That’s what the vaccines help us produce. And moms are able to pass these antibodies onto their infants, either when vaccinated during pregnancy or during the time of breastfeeding, or even if they got vaccinated way before pregnancy.”

As for men over 50 — particularly white men — Branstetter attributed their hesitancy partially to their reluctance to go to the doctor for any reason.

“This is a tough group to convince that they need something. The masculinity that’s in our society that says that we don’t need to complain about things or that we’re tough enough to handle it if we get infected.”

He also mentioned the political discussion involved around the vaccine, as well as the temporary stoppage on the Johnson&Johnson vaccine as contributing factors to vaccine hesitancy.  The pause was lifted on the Johnson&Johnson vaccine at the end of April, and it’s being distributed again.  Branstetter explained that it’s particularly dangerous for those over 50 to avoid the vaccine because they tend to have more risk factors for complications, such as hypertension and diabetes. Older age also raises the risks of mortality and long-term effects of the disease.

“We do not know how to effectively educate and recommend treatment for people post-COVID,” he explained. “Remember, COVID is just a year in … so these long-term symptoms… We don’t know best therapies or if this can be improved. So, avoiding getting it altogether to prevent long-term symptoms is important.”

Branstetter explained that convincing vaccine-hesitant people to get vaccinated was key to reaching herd immunity. He also warned that unvaccinated people waiting on herd immunity will still be susceptible to the virus. It’s the vaccinated group that will be protected. 

“What [herd immunity] will not do is protect individuals who are unvaccinated. So, this misnomer that once we reach herd immunity, everyone’s protected, is something we need to address because even if we reach herd immunity, individuals still need to protect themselves and those they love … by getting vaccinated.”

He also warned that getting a vaccine or gaining natural immunity from catching Covid-19 won’t necessarily offer complete protection, so people should continue to take precautions such as social distancing.

“There wasn’t even a question in my mind about getting the vaccine as soon as it was available,” Foss said. “I got it, and I would be remiss if I didn’t say part of that was because I knew there are 1600 people that work here. And if I wasn’t going to get it, then what sort of example does that set?”

Fewer people have been scheduling vaccination appointments at WGMC, but Foss thinks that’s partially due to retail stores offering vaccines in Troup County.

“As far as we’re concerned, we want to have as many access points [as possible],” Foss said.

Unfortunately, Foss also said Troup County has some resistance to being educated about COVID-19.

“We’ve tried to do some education in the community,” Foss said.  “We’ve tried to have the providers talk about it, but there’s still pushback. And for whatever reason, Troup County has got very high pushback.”

Branstetter said the virus has shown that it can impact anyone, even people who were previously healthy.

“The biggest thing that I know that I can take away from the COVID pandemic is how unpredictable it is,” Branstetter said. “I cannot predict and say with confidence if a 25-year-old who gets COVID is not going to have any complications and be just fine, because we’ve seen it. Covid-19 killed 25-years-old, previously healthy young athletes, even, on top of their physical conditioning. And so, this is something that really doesn’t respect age. It doesn’t respect race or your previous physical condition.”

Foss said people often base what they are going to do on experiences their friends or family share, but COVID-19 is different for everyone.

“I just wish that people understood, just like Danny said… this disease is non-discriminatory, and it will come in and attack anybody,” Foss said. “And we’ve seen some younger people in our community go down. But you know, I think that the thing that’s worrisome is a lot of people do have the mindset of, ‘Well I know so and so who had COVID, and they never got that sick. And then I know that somebody got that second dose of the vaccine, and they got really sick. Why would I want to do that?’ True, you may have a reaction, but having a fever for 12, 24 hours is a much better alternative than potentially winding up on a ventilator or worse.”

To get a vaccination appointment at Wellstar West Georgia Medical Center, Foss said patients can call the hospital or use the Wellstar app.