Geisinger CEO urges vaccination amid 'somewhat concerning' trends

·4 min read

Oct. 16—Three numbers regarding COVID-19 vaccinations came up repeatedly during a Geisinger media update on the pandemic Friday: Vaccinated people are five times less likely to get infected, 10 times less likely to be hospitalized, and 11 times less likely to die.

"That's pretty compelling evidence the vaccine works," Geisinger President and Chief Executive Officer Jaewon Ryu said, repeating the data at least twice later in the virtual event that lasted about 30 minutes.

Ryu pointed out that locally "in the last two or three months we have seen a continuing rise in the COVID virus," and that "hospitals have been pretty overwhelmed in a capacity standpoint.

"We are roughly where we were in late and mid-November," he said. "This is very reminiscent of the levels we were seeing last winter, which gives us a little bit of concern."

One way of comparing that stretch to what's happening now is the rate of new cases every 14 days per 100,000 county residents, something the Times Leader has calculated and tracked since the start of the pandemic. Currently, that rate has risen from 415 on Sept. 15 to 642 Friday. By comparison, the rate was 180 on Oct. 21, 2020 and hit 636 by Nov. 20.

That turned out to be only the start of a surge that reached a rate of 1,247 by Dec. 18. The rate of growth does seem slower this time, though.

Ryu also noted that, while nationwide other areas have peaked in new cases and begun a downward trend, "we're not seeing that here yet." And he cautioned that regular flu season is coming, creating the potential for a double-whammy as the area could cope with serious cases of flu and COVID at the same time.

The primary way to fight both, he stressed several times, is vaccination. Regarding COVID-19, "About 90% of those hospitalized have not been vaccinated," he said. "I strongly encourage folks to get that vaccine. It's proven a safe and effective way to dampen the spread and it reduces the chances of mutations that continue to propagate and have this pandemic last longer."

He referred to the Delta Variant of COVID-19 that has come to dominate most infections, and proven to be much more infections and more likely to cause serious medical issues. Mutations "happen when people get infected and there's an opportunity for the virus to pivot and change its make up," Ryu said. "We need to limit the virus's ability to spread at all." That is done by wearing masks, practicing proper hand hygiene, maintaining social distance and, of course, getting vaccinated.

Another concern is the percent of tests coming back positive in the area. In the last few weeks, Ryu said, that rate has gone from around 11% to 13%. "That suggests the worst is yet to come."

Hospitalizations aren't the only problem with the surge: People are put out of commission just by being in contact with a person who tests positive, because they may have to go into quarantine. "Our employees are a reflection of the community, "Ryu said. "In recent weeks we have seen the number of our employees out on quarantine climb above 1,000."

Here, again, vaccination helps. "For various scenarios, when a person is vaccinated the duration of quarantine is much lower, another reason why the vaccination effort is so critical."

Ryu voiced confidence that Geisinger's decision to require all employees to get vaccinated by Nov. 1 (pushed from Oct. 15) was the right call. He said about 95% of employees have been vaccinated or scheduled vaccinations, and that the number keeps climbing every day. Geisinger works hard to answer concerns and allay fears about the vaccine, but he said the bottom line is that those who are not vaccinated by the deadline will be terminated.

And he noted the new cases are increasingly among younger patients. Earlier in the pandemic last year, about two-thirds of hospitalizations were among those 65 or older. That has flipped, with the majority now under 65.

Asked about the future of the pandemic, Ryu largely demurred from looking into the crystal ball.

"I think the most important thing to realize and embrace is that we control our own destiny in many ways, that the future is up to us," he said. Getting vaccinated, wearing masks, keeping some distance and other well-known recommendations "have really shown to be proven ways to keep this at bay."

Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish

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