LUMBERTON – As the manager of a rural North Carolina hospital, Joann Anderson has spent the past 18 months figuring out how to best care for patients with COVID-19.
Just when she thought the coronavirus pandemic had stabilized this summer, offering a silver lining for a new kind of calmer normalcy, an increase in cases began to overwhelm UNC Health Southeastern in Robeson County.
Now Anderson is crazy, and she’s letting everyone know.
âI don’t use words like ‘angry’ or ‘frustrated,’ said Anderson, president and CEO of Lumberton Hospital in southeastern North Carolina. âIt’s not my standard. But I am about this situation.
Fueled by desperation, a depleted staff and her impending retirement, Anderson has appeared among the state’s health leaders as a Facebook post, COVID vaccine activist, and fighter against disinformation, conspiracy theories and the politics divides.
And it does so in a region where many people remain skeptical about the vaccine and question the severity of the pandemic. Only 30% of people in Robeson County are fully immunized, the lowest rate among North Carolina’s 100 counties.
Thirty-nine people who tested positive for COVID died at UNC Heath Southeastern in August, surpassing the previous record of 31 in January, according to the hospital.
UNC Health Southeastern recently installed a mobile mortuary on its campus because the mortuary inside the hospital, which can accommodate 12 bodies, was full, Anderson said. The hospital is postponing some elective surgeries due to the growing number of COVID patients.
In a Facebook post in mid-August, Anderson said medical professionals know how to control the spread of COVID – through vaccinations, wearing masks, social distancing and hand washing.
âYet we’re going through another wave because people aren’t following what the medical community knows will make a difference,â she wrote.
The hospital staff appreciated the “recognition, the food, the parades, etc.” community last year, Anderson wrote. âThis year, we need you to get involved and be part of the solution. “
For a brief moment, Anderson said, she thought she might be in trouble for the post, which has been shared more than 530 times.
But the comments have been mostly positive, she said, especially among her hospital staff and other health officials, including her son, Chad, who is vice president of surgery and of pharmacy at UNC Rex Healthcare in Raleigh.
âWhatever she says, it won’t be wrong, because it comes from the heart,â he said. âWe don’t muse passion.
“DO NOT LISTEN TO POLITICIANS”
Dr Robin Gary Cummings, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and a member of the hospital’s board of directors, applauded Anderson’s willingness to be frank.
He said Anderson’s message, and his message to college, is, âGuys, this is real. People are dying. It’s not some really neat conspiracy that someone imagined. “
Anderson said she was particularly upset when people accused hospitals of trying to make extra money from the pandemic.
A 20% “top-up” payment for hospitals treating COVID patients who receive Medicare was included in the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) law passed by Congress and enacted in March 2020 by the President of the United States. era, Donald Trump, according to the American Hospital Association.
âWe’re going to have a little shock, but if you come in with a diagnosis of COVID and you’re really sick you’re going to be staying here a lot longer than this payment would ever cover,â Anderson said. . “So no, we are not getting rich with COVID.”
In rural communities like Robeson County, treating patients is personal, she said. Health care workers regularly care for family members, friends and family members of friends.
âWe see these people at church, at the ballpark, at the grocery store, at Walmart or wherever we could be,â she said. âThese are people we know and love. We will do our best for them. There is absolutely no reason for us to fabricate or over-dramatize what is going on here.
Then there are people who say that the vaccine contains some kind of government created chip.
âThere is no chip,â Anderson said. âI don’t know how you could even get a chip in there. The needle is tiny. There is no chip there.
Speaking of government …
âOK, forget about the government,â she said. âI am in no way controlled by the government at the moment. The decisions we make locally are those made by the healthcare professionals in our community. And we read the literature, the science of what’s going on. We don’t listen to politicians. We’re not listening to any of these other rumors unfolding. “
And politics …
âIt has become a Republican versus Democrat issue,â Anderson said. âI am a registered Republican. I took the vaccine.
A PASSION FOR RURAL HEALTH
Growing up in Peabody, Ky. In the Daniel Boone National Forest, Anderson said his family had to drive up to 40 minutes to reach the nearest hospital.
But the Frontier Nursing Service, which serves eastern Kentucky, has set up a mobile unit in their community once a week. Nurses became role models for her and she spent her summers in nursing school working for the organization, Anderson said.
There she saw “rural health care at its best and at its worst,” she said. And she was passionate about it.
âIt was clear that if you let your diabetes get out of hand, you’re going to lose your footing,â Anderson said. âIf you don’t take care of your heart, a lot of bad things can happen. Through their eyes, I could see so many results of not having regular access to care. “
After raising two sons and serving as CEO of Pikeville Medical Center in Kentucky for about a decade, Anderson’s late husband found a job in the Carolinas. She considered working in a more urban setting, she said, but took the helm of Lumberton Hospital 14 years ago.
Access to health care is also a concern in Robeson County, which is the largest county by square kilometers in North Carolina but is home to only about 117,000 people. It is one of the poorest and least healthy counties in the state.
âI felt I could come and hopefully make a difference,â Anderson said.
She describes herself as a “unicorn”. Women make up about 75% of the hospital workforce in the United States, but only 13% of healthcare CEOs are women, according to the American College of Healthcare Executives.
Anderson does not have a business degree, unlike many hospital executives.
And, she says, âI’m a Kentucky basketball fan. In the state of North Carolina, that really makes you a unicorn when it comes to health care. “
‘DO WHAT I CAN DO’
When the coronavirus pandemic began in North Carolina in early 2020, Anderson Hospital was independent.
Chad Anderson said his mother has been tasked with leading her organization through a time of uncertainty without being under the umbrella of a larger health care provider.
“How disjointed do you have to be to not have a system resource?” ” He asked.
Like many rural hospitals over the past decade, the Lumberton facility was looking for a partner. It became UNC Health’s 12th hospital on January 1.
Joann Anderson said the partnership has been good, but that she is ready to move on – this time to retire at the end of the year.
Chris Ellington, who has worked at UNC since 2008, will be the new CEO. He is currently President of the Hospitals of the UNC Health Care Network.
âI think they need the opportunity to have someone who is fully invested in the UNC system who can take it to that next level,â she said. “I think I did what I can do.”
Anderson, whose husband died in 2019, said she plans to move to Raleigh to be closer to her children and grandchildren. She loves to paint, and she could take an art class.
Soon she will join the Campbell University board of trustees and plans to remain a rural health care activist.
This includes talking about ways to slow the spread of COVID.
âMy plea has been, you’ve trusted the healthcare community in the past,â she said. âTrust us now. Don’t let all these other noises get in your way.