A hospital leader in Robeson County tells C&P why she’s exhausted, mad, and scared for her community right now. 

Joann Anderson is frustrated, exhausted, and a bit mad.

With more than 40 years working in healthcare behind her, the president of the UNC Health Southeastern hospital in the small city of Lumberton said she’s never seen a hospital tested like it is now. 

Anderson recently took to Facebook to share photos of a mobile morgue the hospital brought on-site. 

“It breaks my heart and at the same time, it infuriates me,” she wrote. “We had to have it delivered and placed onsite at the hospital because we have had so many deaths from COVID in such a short period of time.” 

Mobile Morgue in Robeson County
In Robeson County, North Carolina’s least vaccinated county, a top hospital leader shared photos of a mobile morgue they were forced to call in amid a resurgence of COVID-19. (Image via Facebook)

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Just 38% of adults in Robeson County are fully vaccinated here, the lowest rate in North Carolina. About 61% of adults are vaccinated statewide, and 64% are vaccinated nationwide. 

North Carolina is experiencing yet another dangerous surge in the COVID-19 pandemic, with hospitals nearing the peak they saw this winter of COVID hospitalizations. 

Anderson spoke with Cardinal & Pine’s Senior Editor Sarah Ovaska this week to talk more about what she’s experiencing in her southeastern corner of the state. Her answers have been edited lightly for clarity. 

C&P: What are things like right now in your hospital? 

Anderson: Hospitalizations are on a very rapid upswing. August has been by far the largest number of patients that we admitted with COVID, and the most deaths. 

Robeson county has the lowest fully vaccinated numbers right in the state, which makes us an extremely vulnerable population. We also have in our general public, a large number of people with chronic health issues, which make us again vulnerable.

My posts were written out of frustration. … And I just thought, ‘I need to bring this down to a local level, I need them to understand what we as the health care providers in the community are experiencing.’ And to get people just to realize this is real. This is impacting the people we care about the most in our lives, our family or friends and we can make a difference in that if we just take a few steps in different behaviors [wearing masks, getting vaccinated] than what we’ve been doing in the past. 

UNC Health Southeastern President Joann Anderson
UNC Health Southeastern President Joann Anderson talked to C&P about the desperate measures they’ve had to take in Robeson County, North Carolina’s least vaccinated county. (Image via Facebook)

C&P: How are healthcare workers in your hospital handling this surge? 

Anderson: Everybody’s life has been totally disrupted this past year, and it’s just taken a toll. Then you come to work, and you’re dealing with COVID, and the effects. You see the mortality rate, the severity of the illness when patients get admitted to the hospital. Emotionally, that’s draining doctors and nurses today. 

One of my nursing assistants told me that she had her first experience this past weekend with a COVID patient that unfortunately passed away. To be with that patient, at the end of their life, and their family members being on a FaceTime call to say goodbye, was emotionally draining and taxing for her. 

[Hospital workers] are going through that much too regularly. It’s tough work that they’re doing right now. We’ve seen people leave because of it, because they just can’t take either the fiscal or the emotional strain anymore.

C&P: Why do you think Robeson County’s vaccination rates are so low? 

Anderson: There’s multiple, multiple factors that are involved in it. Some of it’s cultural, some of it’s distrust, some of it’s misinformation, some of it’s politically charged.Vaccination itself is one that is mystical in many ways, and there are people who are fearful of it because they just don’t know. And (the COVID vaccine is) a new thing.

Anytime we put medications in our body, there are risks associated with it. But the risks associated with COVID outweighs the risk associated with the vaccine.

You can still get COVID even if you had the vaccine, but you’re much less likely to end up in the hospital. Much, much less likely to be in the ICU, and much, much less likely to die if you get COVID. So it’s just weighing those rare risks and making the best decision that a person can for themselves.

C&P: Do you think you are getting through to people in your area? 

Anderson: I don’t know that it’s getting through to the masses but I’ve had anecdotal reports back to me of people that have gotten the vaccine as a result of those posts. I feel good that we’ve got a conversation going where people are really looking at the facts. 

I’ve been asking people to trust your health care providers, these are the people that you’ve trusted in the past. There are lots of things out there on the internet, there are lots of things that might be in the media and other sources, but they’ve trusted us in the past to give them good direction on their health.

C&P: What’s ahead for your hospital? 

Anderson: I do worry about the next four to five weeks just because of that Labor Day weekend. And again, the fact that we have such a low vaccination rate puts us at a vulnerable position in our community. 

The prediction right now for us is that we will peak somewhere near the end of September. That peak means that I may have 20% more or so patients in the hospital than I have today. My highest so far has been 59 on any given day. So that could be potentially another 10 people in the hospital, stretching the system pretty far to be able to do that. 

Hopefully we’ll be able to get through it and start seeing a downhill swing after that period of time. But the next few weeks are going to be tough.

C&P: How big a challenge has this been for Robeson County? 

Anderson: I’ve been in healthcare for 43 years, over 30 years of that have been in healthcare leadership. In my career, I’ve never experienced anything like this. Never. 

Our community’s had a lot of challenges, hurricanes and things that we’ve experienced. And economically, we’re challenged on a regular basis. We know how to manage through that. This is an unknown. It’s an unprecedented pandemic, for us in the world, quite honestly, but for us, it’s extremely challenging.