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A COVID surge fueled by the unvaccinated is overwhelming this New Hampshire hospital

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

COVID-19 cases are spreading across the United States, with particularly high rates in the Northeast. WBUR's Anthony Brooks reports how the surge is overwhelming one hospital in Peterborough, N.H.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Screen this gentleman.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Would you be kind enough to stand over here?

ANTHONY BROOKS, BYLINE: Monadnock Community Hospital, a small hospital in rural southwestern New Hampshire is confronting a dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases.

ERIC LASKY: What we're seeing is just unprecedented.

BROOKS: Dr. Eric Lasky is the medical director of the emergency department at Monadnock. He says his department is seeing more COVID cases than at any point since the pandemic began.

LASKY: Yesterday was quite possibly the worst shift, and it's been getting progressively worse. We had a patient who was young - 38 - on high-flow oxygen, very close to needing intubation. All day, we could not find a bed.

BROOKS: And how is she doing now?

LASKY: Well, I hope she's still alive. Basically, we're managing this person all day in the ER.

BROOKS: Typically, Lasky's job is to stabilize his sickest patients and then move them to a larger hospital. He has a list of some 30 hospitals to call. But lately, there's no room.

LASKY: We have every bed in the five-state area filled - New Hampshire, then Vermont and Massachusetts and Maine, Connecticut, even as far as Albany, N.Y.

BROOKS: As COVID infections soar across New England, New Hampshire has one of the highest rates in the country. Medical experts say it's due in part to the cold weather, which drives people indoors, where the coronavirus spreads more easily. Daniel Perli, chief medical officer at Monadnock, fears infections will climb even higher after people travel and gather for the holidays.

DANIEL PERLI: You know, this is going to only get worse after the Christmas and the New Year coming up. I think we haven't seen the worst of this yet, unfortunately.

BROOKS: Perli says too many people remain unvaccinated. Eric Lasky, the ER doctor, says that includes the vast majority of his patients, especially the sickest ones.

LASKY: And you ask them, are you vaccinated? And they say no. And some will say, well, can I get vaccinated now? And you say, well, it's a little too late for that, you know? It's very frustrating from our perspective, seeing something that is actually preventable and something that would actually shorten the duration of the pandemic.

BROOKS: About two-thirds of New Hampshire residents are fully vaccinated. That's above the national average, but it's the lowest rate in New England. Andy Smith, who directs the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, says his polling found that 1 in 5 New Hampshire residents say they won't get the shot no matter what.

ANDY SMITH: It's not changing, even as cases go up again, as deaths go up again. They're just not going to be budged about why it's important for them to get vaccinated.

LORRAINE STENERSEN: You know what I honestly think? It's because they don't like to be told what to do. They were like, nobody's telling me what to do.

BROOKS: Lorraine Stenersen is 74 from New Ipswich, N.H. She was among those who refused to get vaccinated, but then she got COVID. She had trouble breathing and ended up at Monadnock Community Hospital for 11 days. She's doing better now and tells anyone who will listen to get vaccinated.

STENERSEN: I know it's a choice, but I do feel - you know what? - I've learned my lesson. I have had so many friends die from it. And I'm like, you just got to really take this serious.

BROOKS: In New Hampshire, the live free or die state, there's a streak of libertarianism, which embraces the primacy of personal choice. But doctors say the choice not to get vaccinated is having dire consequences - hospitals filling up with COVID patients, other medical care delayed while exhausting doctors and nurses. All this as hospitals across the region were already understaffed, according to Cynthia McGuire, the CEO of Monadnock Community Hospital.

CYNTHIA MCGUIRE: So it's a convergence of problems. We have more patients, more critically ill patients and much less staff to support the process.

BROOKS: With the arrival of winter, omicron and rising infections, the pressure on hospitals will only get worse. For NPR News, I'm Anthony Brooks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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