‘THEY DIDN’T HAVE TO DIE’: Virus tragedy deepens in Columbus area despite access to vaccines

It has been more than 18 months since the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Bartholomew County. Effective vaccines have been widely available for months, and public health experts know what measures reduce the chances of spreading the virus.

Yet local health officials are finding themselves once again taking stock of a grim and dispiriting reality — 62 people in the Columbus area died from the coronavirus in August and September, including 19 people in Bartholomew County.

That is roughly one life cut short per day over those two months and twice the number of deaths reported in the area — which includes Bartholomew, Brown, Decatur, Jackson, Jennings and Shelby counties — during the same time period last year, when no vaccines were available.

About half of the people in Bartholomew County who died from the virus over the past two months were younger than age 70.

Some were in the prime of their lives, or getting close to it — including a Bartholomew County resident in their 30s and another age 19 or younger who were recently included among the county’s growing virus death toll.

And the worst part of it all, local health officials say, is that nearly every single one of those deaths was preventable if people had gotten vaccinated, which has been shown to overwhelmingly prevent deaths and serious illness.

“It’s very heartbreaking,” said Dr. Deepankar “Deep” Sharma, a physician who specializes in critical care medicine and interventional pulmonology at Columbus Regional Health, where he has been treating COVID-19 patients in the hospital’s intensive care unit.

“Looking at the data, 90% of these deaths are preventable,” Sharma added. “So if we had 19 people (in Bartholomew County) die the last two months, if our vaccine compliance would be higher, then approximately 17 of them should still be alive.”

An announced tragedy

The tragic scenario unfolding in Columbus and the surrounding area has been deeply troubling to doctors and other local health officials who had warned for months that lagging vaccination rates could leave much of the community vulnerable to a resurgence of the virus.

Tens of thousands of people in the six-county area have refused to get vaccinated, providing fertile grounds for the highly contagious delta variant to take root and tear through the region, erasing months of progress.

About 100,000 people in the United States, including around 1,900 people in Indiana, have died from the virus over roughly the past three and a half months as hospitalizations climbed to levels not seen since this past winter.

At least 8,500 people in the Columbus area, including at least 2,550 people in Bartholomew County, were infected with COVID-19 in August and September, according to the Regenstrief Institute.

And the end result was staggering: 2,413 people with COVID-19 wound up in hospital emergency room over those two months — roughly one emergency room visit every 36 minutes. Nearly 400 people were hospitalized, including 131 Bartholomew County residents.

Younger and unvaccinated

Deaths, which generally increase several weeks after cases and hospitalizations spike, soon followed.

But the critically ill patients filling hospital beds this time around were different — they tended to be younger and unvaccinated, and many didn’t have underlying medical conditions that would increase the odds of severe illness. Some were coming into the CRH’s ICU on life support, Sharma said.

“They are requiring life support for days, if not weeks,” Sharma said.

“The trend that we’re seeing … (is) younger patients getting sick and a lot of fatalities also in the younger population who don’t even have any kind of severe or serious chronic medical problems to begin with,” Sharma said,

The vast majority of people who are turning up at CRH struggling to ward off a COVID-19 infection, including those who end up dying from the virus, are unvaccinated, the hospital said.

Over the past two weeks, about 70 people with COVID-19 have been admitted to CRH, Sharma said. Around 50 of them were unvaccinated.

Since July, 19 of the 22 patients who have died from COVID-19 at CRH were unvaccinated, the hospital said.

Pleas from the ICU

Nearly all of the patients who wind up in the ICU at CRH — those who are still conscious and can speak — have been making a heart-wrenching request, Sharma said.

They are pleading with doctors for the vaccine they had opted not to get for months, Sharma said.

“At some point, most of them had requested if they can get the vaccination right now,” Sharma said “And unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. They’re already infected. …Most of them, I would say, had realized that their decision about not getting vaccinated was incorrect.”

But it’s too late.

Doctors wage an all-out battle to save their lives, doing everything they can to sustain blood pressure and oxygen levels.

It’s a battle that usually lasts for more than a week, as staff give regular updates to family and loved ones, Sharma said.

But despite their best efforts, the news often isn’t good.

“It’s really heartbreaking because we see the patient struggle every day to survive,” Sharma said. “But we also talk to the family, we talk to their loved ones and feel and hear the pain in their voice. You can tell that they worry about losing their loved one and that fear stays for days until they recover or they die.”

“Imagine doing that with 10 families every day,” Sharma said.

COVID-19 can severely damage several organs in the body, including the lungs, heart, kidneys and brain, according to the Mayo Clinic. Some people end up needing dialysis. Others have strokes or seizures.

Some who do survive end up struggling for months to fully recover. Others have to go to a long-term care facility “to live there on a ventilator for the rest of their life,” Sharma said.

“(Dying from COVID-19) is a very painful process,” Sharma said. “…It’s very traumatic for the patient and for the family to see their loved ones go through this.”

However, experts predict that the preventable deaths will continue, particularly as colder weather drives people indoors, where the virus can spread more easily.

Currently, about 75,000 eligible people in the six-county area in and around Columbus, including about 24,000 people in Bartholomew County, remain unvaccinated.

“We need to do better,” Sharma said.

“There’s no reason for a young, healthy, 45-year-old to just die from a respiratory infection which is 90% preventable,” he said.