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Fighting an invisible enemy': Shaheen meets with Upper Valley health care workers

The ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic’s impact on health care services and facilities may impact communities long after COVID-19 subsides due in large part to prolonged staffing shortages and workforce fatigue, local health officials warned this week.

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) visited Valley Regional Hospital in Claremont on Tuesday to convey her gratitude to the local health care workers and national guardsmen for their tireless efforts throughout the pandemic to treat the ill and provide critical services ranging from vaccinations to testing for the novel coronavirus.

“Valley Regional Hospital is on the front lines delivering lifesaving care to COVID-19 patients amid the omicron surge,” Shaheen remarked.

The strain on health care workers has been emotional as well as physical, Shaheen noted.

“It’s not just about what you have given up in your personal lives, but the impact of watching this pandemic and seeing the reaction it has taken on your patients,” Shaheen told a lobby filled with Valley Regional Hospital board members, administrators, employees and national guardsmen.

Valley Regional Hospital, a licensed 25-bed facility, is “near or at full capacity every day” while “continuing to face a staffing shortage” due to the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, according to the hospital’s Interim President and Chief Executive Officer Jocelyn Caple.

The patient influx from the pandemic has created a strain on hospitals region-wide, including pivotal hospitals like Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon. This places a greater responsibility on local providers like Valley Regional to treat patients within their communities, to prevent patients from overwhelming services at the regional facilities.

Dr. Juliann Barrett, president of Valley Regional Hospital’s medical staff and an officer in the U.S. Army, called health care workers “America’s biggest heroes.”

“Two years into this pandemic, health care workers continue to fight, day in and day out, for the health of the people of this nation and around the world. Everyday they come to work, fighting an invisible enemy that could attack them, their families, their colleagues and their patients from any direction,” Barrett said. “Many of these health care workers have sacrificed more than long hours and lack of sleep. They have given up time with family, vacations that they well deserve, their own health and have been forced to endure the overwhelming scrutiny of naysayers.”

The fatigue and stress on health care professionals has been overwhelming, which has only intensified from the growing staffing shortages, Barrett said. The industry was already struggling with workforce shortages prior to the pandemic, which has driven many professionals into decisions to retire or seek a career change.

“The real pandemic may be the one that will come later in the game, when these same individuals who have spent so long fighting will break down, physically, mentally, and emotionally,” Barrett warned. “Given the pressures of the pandemic, we are in danger of severe workforce shortages of our health care warriors. The system was already struggling, but COVID-19 has exacerbated the issue.”

Officials urged more citizens to get vaccinated, saying it is the best way to ease the strain on health care workers and services.

“The best solution is to get everyone vaccinated so we can reduce the spread of the virus, keep people out of hospitals, and give our health care workers time to finally recharge,” Barrett said.

While the vaccinations do not fully guarantee immunity, studies have shown that the COVID-19 vaccine reduces the risk of infection, even with newer and more virulent strains such as Omicron, local health officials said.

Perhaps more important, according to the officials, vaccinated individuals are less likely to experience severe symptoms than unvaccinated individuals and are less likely to require medical attention or hospitalization.

“This is how we give our health care workers time to recharge and breathe again,” Barrett said.

Slightly over 68 percent of New Hampshire residents are fully vaccinated, which is above the national average of 63 percent.

However, the vaccination rates across many Sullivan County communities remain statistically low, including in Claremont, where less than 48 percent of residents are fully vaccinated.

According to Barrett, local vaccine clinics in Claremont reported high turnouts initially when the booster shots became available, though the number of recipients have since declined.

In addition, most of the clinics’ vaccine recipients are the fully vaccinated who are seeking a booster or children who recently became eligible to be vaccinated, Barrett said. There has not been a visible increase in the residents who remain unvaccinated despite their eligibility.

Barrett said she tries to encourage unvaccinated patients by assuaging their concerns about the vaccine’s safety.

The medical community has administered more COVID-19 vaccines worldwide in the last 16 months than perhaps any vaccine to date, Barrett said. The actual number of people who have experienced any adverse reactions to the vaccine is a “tiny fraction”, similar in proportion to other and more common vaccines.

“We’re just seeing those reports more publicly because [so many people] in the world are getting vaccinated right now,” Barrett said. “Those mathematics helps some of my patients decide or say they hadn’t thought about it that way.”

Barrett says she hopes for a change in view from the unvaccinated population, though practically she worries that many of these individuals may not reconsider until tragedy occurs.

“I think what often happens is that they get sick, or someone close to them gets sick,” Barrett said. “And it’s pretty disappointing and saddening to think that a person would have to get really sick before telling themselves that they may have made a mistake.”

Shaheen also made a second stop at Headrest, an organization in Lebanon that provides treatment to individuals with substance use disorders, to tour the facility and hear from staff about challenges they have faced throughout the pandemic.

“The pandemic created unprecedented pressures on families across the Granite State, from economic hardship to isolation and trauma – all of which increased the likelihood of substance misuse. During today’s visit to Headrest, I listened to challenges their staff are facing amid heightened demand for their services, as well as how we can improve access to treatment and help communities heal moving forward,” Shaheen said. “For years, New Hampshire has grappled with heartbreaking losses stemming from the substance use disorder crisis, which is why we need an all-hands-on-deck response as rates of misuse tick upwards. Connecting Granite Staters with treatment and support is a top priority for me in the Senate, and I’ll continue working to secure federal resources for those on the front lines of this crisis.”