Meritus Hits Milestone in Efforts Against COVID and Officials Attribute Progress to Vaccinations

For the first time in well over a year, there were no COVID-19 in-patients Thursday and Friday at Meritus Medical Center near Hagerstown.

The last time Meritus didn't have any COVID in-patients was March 28, 2020, according to health system spokeswoman Joelle Butler. The first two COVID patients were admitted the next day.

"It's been just over 450 days," said President and CEO Maulik Joshi. "That's quite a long time.

The peak number of COVID patients was 91 on Jan. 19. "Our positivity rate in the county was just under 20%," Joshi said.

Meritus Health officials were "grateful but cautious" about the news, said Melanie Heuston, chief nursing and patient care officer, "because we need people to take the vaccine. And with the vaccine rate in the community, we need to still stay alert and careful."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 52.3% of Washington County's population age 18 or older had been fully vaccinated as of Thursday. That compares with 65.4% statewide.

Yet Chief Medical Officer Aaron George credits the vaccines for the drop in the number of Meritus COVID patients.

"I think without question the vaccine is the most powerful tool that we have to fight this," he said, "and with vaccine use in our community, we are seeing this response — I think this is absolutely correlated with vaccinations here in Washington County."

In fact, over the past few months, 95% of COVID patients admitted at Meritus were people who had not been vaccinated, George said.

"The important thing with vaccines is first and foremost, we know they're safe. And then secondly, we know they're effective," he said. "Across the country, in terms of individuals that have died from COVID over the last several months … 99.9% of those that have died across the country in hospitals were unvaccinated.

"We're seeing that play out here locally, and we know that the effectiveness of the vaccine is not only good for preventing death, but preventing severity of illness."

Another reason to vaccinate, he added, is that they appear to be effective against COVID-19 variants.

"It's really important to recognize that the variants that we see across the country are actually responding, the vaccines respond really well to fighting them," George said. "And so in places where vaccination rates are high, those variants have been better managed overall.

"And so I think it is just another marker to remind our community of the importance of vaccination, so that we can try to confront and prevent those variants from arriving at our doorstep."

Local health officials are still stressing the need for vaccinations as COVID restrictions Gov. Larry Hogan put in place last year are set to expire July 1. George said the drive to get people vaccinated is paying off.

"We continue to see members of our community get vaccinated every day, and we're doing everything we can to reach our community where they live," he said. "We've rolled out a mobile vaccination clinic that's going to every corner of the county, going to supermarkets and gas stations, to try to connect with patients where they are.

"And when we meet them there we've seen good response, and so we think that this is about getting the vaccine out to every area of the community as much as possible."

Heuston said the nursing staff "really had to step in, and it was their honor and privilege" to be there for patients in place of loved ones because of visitation restrictions.

But visiting restrictions have been relaxed a bit, and Joshi said more decisions on that front are coming.

"We're getting much closer to pre-pandemic visitation," he said. "This whole time, we feel for patients and not being able to see their loved ones, and that's heartbreaking. So we're looking forward to it. The final details are coming out next week."

Joshi noted that among the last 1,000 to be tested in Washington County, fewer than 0.5% were positive for COVID-19.

"That's a great news as well," he said.

"What we've learned is, one, we are always prepared for pandemics, epidemics, crises, outbreaks; but the basics of washing our hands and those things help prevent infections," he said. "So I think we've done it as a community. But Melanie's absolutely right — we're cautious and careful because variants are out there, and that's why we keep vaccinating. And we have to, because we don't want any variants."