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Growing wait list for COVID-19 treatment used in severe Mid-South cases

Published: Aug. 31, 2021 at 11:30 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - A waitlist that could mean the difference between life and death is the reality now for some young COVID-19 patients in and around the Mid-South.

Tuesday, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris and other officials toured Baptist Memorial Hospital’s ECMO unit.

An ECMO machine can temporarily run a patient’s heart and lungs, which has become an integral part of care for severely ill COVID-19 patients. This is the only adult unit of its kind within about 200 miles and dozens need this kind of care. But all the machines are being used.

Over a week stretch, Baptist Memphis critical care medical director, Dr. Jeff Wright, saw one person die a day of COVID. The average age of those patients was 35.

“These are not 35-year-olds with a bunch of medical problems. They all had jobs. They all had families,” said Wright.

The reality of a pandemic doctors say is now mainly affecting unvaccinated people.

“Of our ventilated COVID patients, 31 patients are ventilated. Two of them had prior vaccinations,” Wright said.

Beyond mechanical ventilation, some COVID-19 patients need an ECMO machine to run their heart and lungs. Five of those machines are at Baptist’s ECMO unit, the only one in the region.

All are being used, with a growing waiting list.

“Around this whole quarter of the United States, basically all the machines are in use. There’s a list and some will die waiting for ECMO. I don’t get calls for those in their 50s or 60s. they’re all in their 20s and 30s,” said St. John Craig with Baptist Medical Group.

Harris and Shelby County Health Director Dr. Michelle Taylor toured the unit Tuesday. While considered an asset to the community, the ECMO unit’s output is a sign of an ever-present pandemic.

“We walked the floors of the ICU. All the beds are full. By all accounts, all the patients are in a very, very serious situation,” Harris said.

“This is now a choice people are making, to get a serious illness and die of it. There’s no reason this needs to continue to happen,” said infectious disease specialist, Dr. Steve Threlkeld.

There are about 150 patients hospitalized at Baptist with COIVD-19, shy of the peak it saw over the winter of 172.

Doctors say when you choose the vaccine, you choose to best protect yourself against serious illness and death.

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