Chief medical officers and physician leaders at Saint Joseph Berea and Baptist Health Richmond have joined together to issue a plea to their community: "Help us to help you."

A joint letter, signed by more than 20 physicians, is encouraging the community to do everything it can to fight against COVID-19 for the sake of the local healthcare systems and their employees.

“Right now, what we need most is help from our community,” the letter reads. “We are asking for – imploring – you to support these efforts. Without everyone doing their part, we are at risk for failure.”

In the letter, the physicians state that every tool available for defense against the virus, must be used.

These tools include masking, hand washing, keeping a few feet of distance between ourselves and others, and receiving a vaccine.

"Together, these measures can help keep members of your family from becoming severely ill, being hospitalized or even dying from COVID-19," the letter stated.

“If you could only walk in our shoes and see the patients we see,” the document continues. “We so desperately need everyone in this community to wear a mask when in public and to receive a vaccine. These are simple measures that, if we all do them, can save many from the huge challenges they will face if someone in their family contracts COVID-19.”

The situation at both hospitals is very serious according to local medical professionals.

Both Dr. Shelley Stanko, chief medical officer at St. Joseph Berea and Dr. Erica Gregonis, CMO at Baptist Health, agreed this particular surge of COVID-19 cases was causing a larger strain on their resources than the winter surge in December of 2020.

With such dire circumstances, the two healthcare systems worked in conjunction with the other to write the letter — something that has never been done before.

“This is unprecedented, certainly,” Gregonis said of the letter. “That calls for us as healthcare providers to be thinking outside of the box, and at the end of the day... we are human beings, we are all just physicians trying to take care of the community. No matter where you go, we are taking a united stand to say how important it is for the community to help us at this point. We felt compelled to join together because healthcare is our goal, no matter where you go.”

Stanko agreed and said of the letter, “This is not typical; it’s like two high schools across town or two grocery stores — you don't share resources. But the need for the community has made it not even a question to do this letter collectively.”

The two CMOs state their facilities are doing everything they can to be efficient and make the best of what resources they have. However, as cases climb, they are running out of beds, not only in their own hospitals, but in other locations as well.

As regional hospitals are stretched thin as well, it has become more difficult to send patients to other hospitals who are in need of a higher level of care.

The CMO's said they are running out of available resources and beds, not only for COVID-19 patients, but for other emergencies such as heart attacks, or critical accidents.

“Right now hospital systems are seeing such high volumes of patients with COVID; and other health conditions aren’t going away,” Stanko said. “Healthcare systems are designed to meet the needs, not exceed the needs. When you have this kind of surging, the hospitals are not built with extra capacity and that is going to have an impact on timeliness, efficiency, not only for COVID-19 but other issues as well.”

Gregonis said like St. Joseph Berea, Baptist Health Richmond is a critical care access hospital that often has to send patients to a higher level of care or treatment.

“We are not unique here in Richmond, other spaces are tight on bed availability and there may not be a place to transfer them to a higher level of care elsewhere,” Gregonis said. “Because we are having to use so many beds for COVID, others are being affected because there may not be an ICU bed elsewhere, there may not be a surgeon or whatever we don’t have to transfer them to. People don’t realize that this affects each and every person that walks through the doors.”

As of Wednesday morning, Gregonis said there are 23 COVID-19 positive patients in her facility. Two of those individuals are vaccinated and 21 of them have not received the shot. Four individuals — none of whom are vaccinated — are in the ICU.

Gregonis said this is more than the hospital is accustomed to.

Stanko said the healthcare facilities are “bumping the ceiling” on their resource dependency.

“We are definitely treating higher numbers now than we did in the surge during the winter time,” Stanko explained. “And not just in those we have in the emergency but also in the (COVID) unit as well.”

Both agreed their staff is exhausted, but are determined and dedicated to the well being of the community.

“A lot of our employees have a deep sense of responsibility to help their neighbors, friends, and families,” Stanko said. “But they are also being called on because of the increase in cases for longer work hours, more shifts and a higher intensity based on the level of illness. It is physically and mentally exhausting to dig deep to help take care of those around them and recharge to meet the next person with the same care you met the first patient 15 people ago."

Gregonis said the Baptist Health Richmond staff is tired, but camaraderie of their coworkers is something that helps them pull through.

“The fact they are experiencing these challenges brings the staff closer together, and the fact they see (the administrators) are willing to stop elective procedures and bring OR nurses to work in other areas to help them; they are thankful for that,” Gregonis said.

Gregonis and Stanko agree their highest priority is the wellbeing of the patients, but they are begging the community to help them by mitigating the risk of COVID to help healthcare workers across the county.

To find a vaccine, visit vaccine.gov or the Madison County Health Department website.

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