The Virus is Winning: A COVID-19 Update with Dr. Erik Schuls
The following is an article written by Bill Poteat, Reporter for the Gaston Gazette.
If you’re looking for a sunny vision of where Gaston County stands in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, CaroMont Health Dr. Erik Schuls is not the man you want to speak with.
Schuls has been on the front lines of the COVID fight for the past eight months as CaroMont Regional Medical Center’s medical director for hospitalist services and physician administrator of the acute care service line.
He is grim in his assessment of where the county stands now and blunt in his prescription for needs to be done to slow the spread of the virus.
“Right now,” he said, “the virus is winning. I want this to be over. We all want this to be over. But we have to work to make that happen.”
In a video conference call with a Gazette reporter, Schuls answered questions about where Gaston stands now, what has fueled the latest surge in the spread of the virus, and what needs to be done to bring it under control.
Some of his answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
GAZETTE: Where do Gaston County and North Carolina stand now?
Dr. SCHULS: Last Friday, North Carolina had 2,300 new COVID cases. That’s the highest ever. We had a record number of hospitalizations across the state. Both numbers passed the previous peaks in mid-July.
In Gaston County, our positivity testing rate of 9.9 percent is very high. Our rate of hospitalization is 50 percent higher than the national average. Last week, CaroMont Regional had 68 confirmed-positive hospitalized patients. At the same time all of Mecklenburg County, which has five times our population, had only 95.
That rate is indicative of a very sick and unhealthy population. A lot of people in Gaston County are obese and obesity doubles the risk of hospitalization and death.
GAZETTE: What are the reasons for this surge in cases?
Dr. SCHULS: Part of it is pandemic fatigue. People are tired of wearing masks, tired of distancing, tired of this impact on their lives.
Some people are having large indoor gatherings once again — going to church, weddings, baby showers. We have the re-openings of colleges and public schools, at least on a partial level. We’re seeing more transmissions in families. Nursing homes and long-term care facilities remain at risk. And we have the potential for ‘super-spreader’ events coming up in the future. Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, political rallies.
GAZETTE: What about the upcoming holidays? How should people handle them?
Dr. SCHULS: Any gatherings outdoors are much safer than indoors. For Halloween, leaving candy outside in sanitized individual bags is much safer than opening doors and greeting children.
As to Thanksgiving and Christmas, the risk, especially for older people, is very high. This may be the year to forgo in-person gatherings if you are going to be putting your loved ones at risk.
A problem we’re seeing is that many people are very careful out in public, in the grocery store. But, around family and friends, they let their guard down. We can’t do that. Masks and distancing are just as critical with friends as with strangers.
GAZETTE: So wearing a mask remains extremely important?
Dr. SCHULS: The mask serves two purposes. It prevents you from spreading the virus if you have it but aren’t yet showing symptoms, and it protects you from the same thing with the person you are close to. Often people are sick for one to two days before they show any symptoms. That’s why the mask is so important. This virus is just so nasty.
GAZETTE: What about this idea of ‘herd immunity?’
Dr. SCHULS: The more contagious a disease is, the higher the percentage of people who would have to be infected. Experts say at least 70 percent of the population would have to be infected and then recover from COVID to halt the pandemic.
If that occurred, the death toll would be enormous. The only way herd immunity is going to occur will be through the development of a successful vaccine. That’s the way infectious diseases have been beaten in the past — the measles, mumps, polio.
GAZETTE: How great is the threat from flu this season?
Dr. SCHULS: A co-infection of the flu and COVID can be lethal. Very bad news. My advice: Get the flu shot now. Don’t wait. If there is a silver lining, it is that mask wearing may help keep the flu infection rate down.
And let’s remember. COVID is not the flu. It’s brutal. It will knock your socks off. You’re looking at being sicker longer. If you have to go to the hospital, you’re looking at a longer hospital stay.
GAZETTE: Your conclusions?
Dr. SCHULS: This virus is not under control. It’s winning. But we can’t let it win. Together, we have to stand firm. Wear the mask. Socialize outdoors. Maintain the 6-foot distance. Wash your hands.
We need to protect vulnerable populations. We need to remember that the small sacrifices we make now can make an enormous difference for our future.
Bill Poteat, who is pondering what he and his family will do for Thanksgiving and Christmas this year, may be reached at 704-869-1855.