***AUTHOR’S NOTE: Under ordinary circumstances, most hospitals would not grant media access to their ICU, nor would our news organization seek it. The extreme seriousness of the situation in hospitals across West Virginia led WVU Medicine officials and us to come to the conclusion that this information needed to get out to the public. While in the COVID ICU, our staff did not enter any patient rooms and did not interfere with patient care. All of the video and still images associated with this series of reports were reviewed by WVU Medicine officials to ensure patient privacy.

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – “The sickest of the sick, the people that aren’t getting off ventilators, the patients that aren’t getting to go home to their loved ones, don’t have the vaccine. So, if you love your family, if you love yourself and you want to help us out, please, please, please, please get vaccinated.” Those are the words of Miles Riley, a respiratory therapist who has been working to save COVID-19 patients throughout the pandemic in the Medical ICU at WVU Medicine’s J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital, in Morgantown.

We’ve all heard the urgings of politicians, government officials and public service announcements, calling for everyone who is able, to get vaccinated. Some have questioned the motivations of those doing the urging, but this article is all about the thoughts and beliefs of those who have been on the front lines of the coronavirus battle and are based on what they’ve seen first-hand.

The percentage of West Virginians who are fully vaccinated is below 50%, with the state’s younger populations showing the lowest rates of vaccination, according to the WV DHHR. Those statistics play out in ICUs around the state.

“I know what I see in my ICU, and the majority of the patients do not have a vaccine and by majority, I mean, like 90% of the patients do not have a vaccine that are in the ICU,” Medical ICU Nurse Manager Cara Hawkins explained.

During our recent visit to the COVID ICU, everyone we talked with wanted an opportunity to explain why they believe West Virginians should roll up their sleeves and get vaccinated.

Dr. Sarah Hadique

“The only one thing which has definitely worked is vaccines, because the majority of the patients you will see in the ICU are un-vaccinated. And the only really small percentage of vaccinated people you’re seeing are those who are severely immunocompromised, because they cannot generate the immune response. I highly encourage people to get the vaccine, because that is our answer to this thing, because there’s not much therapy available otherwise,” Dr. Sarah Hadique told us, in between rounds in the COVID ICU.

For several of the COVID ICU staff, the decision is simply a matter of life and death:

Respiratory Therapist Brittney Thomas

“We all do respect your body, your choice, and the fact that we should all have freedom of choice. However, we also do watch a lot of people die, because of that choice. And people think it’s just a joke or they don’t take it seriously. Like how many ever people outside in the parking lot drinking beer or whatever, two inches apart in the bars, nothing’s been canceled this time around. So if you are going to want to go out and do all those things, think about everybody else and get your shot,” said Respiratory Therapist Brittney Thomas.

“I think the average person should be vaccinated because it’s safe and it’s effective against severe disease. And your choice to vaccinate will protect someone else. And you indirectly then are saving someone else’s life, whether that’s from heart attack, car accident or COVID. So your active choice to vaccinate or not vaccinate directly affects whether someone else lives or dies,” Dr. Alison Wilson, the Executive Chair of the WVU Critical Care & Trauma Institute said.

Medical ICU Nurse Manager Cara Hawkins

As the ages of severely ill COVID patients dropped, the need for vaccinations really hit home for Hawkins: “What put this close home to me is that the patients are my age. That is very scary. I think I have a whole lot of living left to do. That’s very scary to see people that are my age in my group and younger. I’ve seen patients in my unit, they’re in their 20s and that’s really scary. Those people still have a lot of living left to do as well. A vaccine definitely could prevent you from being in my ICU and, getting as severely ill as some of these patients are. To me, it makes sense that you would do that for yourself, to help protect yourself and protect your loved ones as well.”

Dr. Alison Wilson

WVU Medicine officials recently announced that approximately 90% of their staff has been vaccinated, but Dr. Wilson has strong words for medical personnel who have not been and as a result, will likely lose their jobs: “The sad thing is in my eyes, that’s patient abandonment. And I know those are strong words, but it’s real. The patients need you now. And no matter what you think about COVID real or not, that’s just not ethical.”

All of the folks we talked with inside the COVID ICU would certainly fall under the common definition of a “healthcare hero,” but Dr. Wilson believes that definition may be changing. “The people who were a little skeptical, who finally gained the courage to go and get the vaccine. That’s who I think is the hero now,” she told us.

***This is part four in a multi-part series. You can watch and read part one, here, where we learned about the strain the COVID pandemic is having on West Virginia’s entire hospital system. In part two, we heard from many ICU workers about what it has been like working throughout the pandemic and what role staffing shortages are having on the situation. In part three, we learned about a last-ditch procedure called “proning,” that leaves patients, sedated, on their stomachs for 16 hours a day.