EVANSVILLE – Lacey Poag didn’t just shake her head in sadness during a recent Courier & Press article that said a 33-year-old man from Vanderburgh County died from COVID-19.
It broke her heart a little more.
Poag knows the pain of having a loved one torn off too early in his life by the virus. His little brother, Cody Whobrey, was the same age when he died suddenly from the coronavirus at the start of the pandemic. Whobrey, a resident of County Warrick, left behind a 7-year-old son.
“As much as I miss Cody and suffer for my own loss and that of my family, my mother – we still fight terribly every day,” she said.
It’s been 17 months since her brother died after complaining of fatigue and lying down to take a nap, Poag said, and people in their prime are still dying from this thing. Still dying, even though Indiana residents over the age of 30 – Cody’s age group – became eligible for vaccination almost six months ago.
Young victims of the coronavirus have also fallen sicker than other patients and spend more time in the hospital, according to local doctors. This is the nature of the Delta variant.
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“Last week I had six patients on my rounded list who were all under 50, all very sick with COVID,” said Dr. Jessica Mendel, an Evansville-based doctor who works as an independent contractor in hospitals. “We usually round up around 20 patients each, and it was rare to have more than one or two under the age of 60.
“Certainly, much younger people are dying or leaving hospitals with crippling lung disease and other problems after long stays, over 14 days.”
Young hospital patients who die from COVID-19 usually take longer to do so, Mendel said.
“They have more reserves. Stronger. But not strong enough in the long run,” she said. “The only time they don’t is when they have a massive stroke or a blood clot in their lungs. Then they die sooner.”
People under the age of 60 represent a much larger proportion of recent coronavirus deaths in Vanderburgh and Henderson counties, Ky. Than they were in the first iteration of COVID-19. Since Delta emerged in Vanderburgh County in June, the county has lost residents aged 33, 40 and 46 and five in their 50s. A 37-year-old Henderson County resident has died along with four people in their 50s.
Weekly case data suggests the August surge may start to ease, as Vanderburgh County reported about 150 fewer cases in the first week of September than the week before. It was still over 1,000 cases.
Deaconess Health System reported on September 1 that it had 179 hospitalized patients positive for COVID. The number was 159 on Monday.
There is no guarantee that these emerging trends will continue, and there is reason to believe that the push is doing as much damage as ever. The Vanderburgh County Board of Health on Monday issued a ‘call to action’ pleading for help encircling the coronavirus and declaring that overall ‘the number of local hospitalizations for COVID patients is the highest that they have ever been “.
Several things have happened at once as the link in the battle against COVID-19 has shifted from older patients to younger ones. The more contagious Delta variant, its mutations, and reluctance to vaccinate among young residents are at the heart of it all.
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In a Facebook post Thursday that was shared 339 times, Dr Jessica Jeffries of Evansville Intensive Care lamented some people’s reliance on questionable drugs and vitamins instead of vaccination. These people became patients, Jeffries wrote, using capital letters to make his point.
“And they are here. Dying. Otherwise healthy young people in their 20’s (TWENTY !!!) 30 (THIRTY !!!) and 40 (FORTY !!!), who should be all over the place. their life ahead of them, ”she said. wrote.
“And EACH OF THESE YOUNG PEOPLE ARE NOT VACCINATED.”
The Vanderburgh County Board of Health’s call to action on Monday included a series of statistics putting vaccination rates for local teens 12 and older and people in their 20s at no more than 5.5%.
To fully understand how different conceptions of vulnerability and vaccines have brought this community to this point, we have to go back to the first week of December.
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It was the first week that Vanderburgh County recorded more than 1,000 cases of the coronavirus. The county was in the midst of a two-month string of coronavirus-related deaths that would see 176 residents die – 91% of them 60 or older. This first week, that age group accounted for 21% of the county’s coronavirus cases and 88% of its deaths.
But vaccines became available to elderly residents in stages in January and February – and the total number of Vanderburgh County cases has dropped every week, except for a modest resurgence in March and April.
By the time the Delta-fueled COVID-19 wave roared like wildfire across the country in July and August, nearly 80% of Vanderburgh County residents aged 60 and over had been vaccinated. Their share of local cases was several percentage points lower than it was during the dark winter days before vaccination.
COVID-19 deaths among older residents have declined so far as the eight Vanderburgh County residents and five Henderson County residents under the age of 60 who have died since Delta’s onset respectively account for nearly one-third and almost two-thirds of the total.
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The correlations between vaccine reluctance, youthfulness, and the nature of the Delta variant help explain what’s going on, said Dr. Payal Patel-Dovlatabadi, associate professor of public health at the University of Evansville.
With most of the elderly local residents vaccinated, Patel-Dovlatabadi said, the virus attacks the groups that are left behind – people with other health conditions and the unvaccinated. Local hospitals say almost all COVID-19 patients in their intensive care units and on ventilators are not vaccinated.
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And this correlates with the younger age groups. Even with nearly 80% of older Vanderburgh County residents who have been vaccinated, the county’s overall vaccination rate is still only 57% of those eligible.
“(Delta) really goes more directly to the lungs. The symptoms are a bit different. It’s just the way the virus has mutated,” Patel-Dovlatabadi said. “It only attacks those under the age of 60 and those who may have other co-morbidities.”
While some of the region’s unvaccinated residents may have escaped the virus in its early incarnations, Delta’s greater infectivity and transmissibility has proven to be too great.
“Some data suggests that the Delta variant may cause more serious disease than the previous variants in unvaccinated people,” the CDC said in a recent statement. “In two different studies from Canada and Scotland, patients infected with the Delta variant were more likely to be hospitalized than patients infected with Alpha or the original virus that causes COVID-19.
“Even so, the vast majority of hospitalizations and deaths caused by COVID-19 are unvaccinated people.”
For weeks, Deaconess has released inside data that makes this point with penetrating clarity.
On Monday, the local health system reported on Facebook that it had 159 hospitalized patients positive for COVID – 87% of whom are “not vaccinated.” There were 50 infected patients in the ICU, Deaconess reported. All but three were not vaccinated.
Thirty-six coronavirus patients were on ventilators, the local health system reported, 33 of whom were unvaccinated.
The figures include all deaconess hospitals and the women’s hospital. Ascension St. Vincent Evansville has not released data on patient immunizations, but said on Friday he knew the data would show the same trend.
On Monday, the Vanderburgh County Board of Health produced a statistic believed to be complete: Of 1,288 total hospitalizations between Aug. 1 and Aug. 22, 98.6 percent of patients were not vaccinated.
“Those who fell ill were so scared and shocked”
Mendel estimates she has treated around 100 COVID-19 patients since December, nearly all of whom have pleaded for vaccination before leaving hospital.
“Those who got so sick were so scared and shocked. A lot of them were basically healthy. No specific reason for serious illness from COVID,” she said. “Someday we may know why they got sick, but we don’t know who will and who won’t.”
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Since her brother’s death, Lacey Poag has become a mask and immunization evangelist. She has spoken to many people who believed that they or their loved ones were too young and healthy to be seriously affected by COVID-19.
A conversation brought her to a halt, making her realize how much she still has to do.
“Someone last week, someone who hadn’t seen me in years, asked me, ‘What did your brother die of?’” She said. “I told them and they said, ‘Oh, I didn’t think that was a real thing.'”
Thomas B. Langhorne can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected]