COVID-19: One year later at Merit Health Natchez

Published 7:48 pm Friday, March 26, 2021

To anyone who stepped through the doors of Merit Health Natchez one year ago, it is almost like a completely different world today.

The heads of nurses and doctors are a held a bit higher and their spirits are just a tad lighter without a constant fear of the next COVID-19 surge on their shoulders.

Merit Health Natchez CEO Lance Boyd said the first COVID-19 case at Merit was diagnosed one year ago this month — on March 10, 2020, to be exact.

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Boyd said the months that followed were like nothing he has ever experienced in his entire medical career.

“Most outbreaks that I’ve had to face over my career lasted only a week, two weeks or 30 days at the most,” he said. “We’ve been in an emergency preparedness situation for over a year now. No hospital really plans for a contingency like that — where you have to be prepared (to face an outbreak) for an entire year.”

Today, Boyd said hospital workers are as surprised if someone tests positive with COVID-19, as they were when the first cases were diagnosed.

“There was a time when, if half the people who came through the ER or hospital were positive, we weren’t surprised it. We’re back to that point when we get a case, we’re surprised by it,” he said.

The worst point of the pandemic to date was between Christmas and New Year’s Day, Boyd said. In a typical year, that is a slow time for the hospital because people typically travel or see their families, he said.

However, around Christmas 2020 the hospital bedded 27 COVID-19 patients — which has been the highest number of COVID patients at Merit Health at one time.

As of last week, there was only one COVID-19 positive patient at Merit Health, Boyd said.

“The scariest part was that routine illnesses that we typically see everyday disappeared,” he said. “I’m not just talking about the flu. We went three months without a stroke patient coming through the ER. Last week, six stroke patients came through in a 20-hour period.”

Boyd said COVID-19 precautions might have kept the flu at bay. Boyd also said people may have been so scared about COVID they ignored other health issues.

“Now, as our patients are starting to show back up, we’re seeing some conditions that should have been taken care of over a year ago.”

Boyd said the stress of COVID was made easier by a strong show of support from the community. Meals were provided for Merit Health staff, there were donations from businesses and prayer vigils were held in the parking lot, he said.

“The police and sheriff’s departments even drove through the parking lot with their lights and sirens on in support,” he said. “Thousands of prayers were offered up for our staff, for first responders and all of those on the front lines.”

The next wave of relief came when vaccines arrived, Boyd said. Cases started steadily declining in January.

“I can remember that day in December when we gave the first vaccine. To date, we’ve vaccinated over 10,000 of our citizens. You can see a difference.”

Boyd said the hospital is looking at a partnership with Adams County Emergency Management to become a COVID-19 vaccination site.

“We were excited when the governor and department of health announced anyone over 16 is eligible,” he said. “Do your research, get comfortable with the vaccine and get vaccinated. That is the way out of this thing.”

A since COVID-19, the hospital continues to take precautions, some of which may be permanent. For example, the hospital has learned to take care of more acutely ill patients at one time than ever before, Boyd said.

“I think we’ve learned how to grow our capabilities,” he said.

Boyd said people should not harbor a false sense of security that COVID-19 has disappeared.

“Things are normalizing for us, but we still are taking all of the precautions that we were,” he said. “Everyone is still masking, we’re still screening patients before they enter and we’re still testing patients before elective surgeries. Although things are better, we know that the variant strain is present in the state. We don’t want this thing to come back.”