More patients are hospitalized in Caldwell Memorial Hospital for COVID-19 now than at any time since the pandemic began, and it has the hospital under stress, a hospital leader said.

Nineteen patients with COVID-19 were hospitalized at CMH on Friday morning, said Laura Easton, president and chief executive officer of Caldwell UNC Health Care.

A 137-bed hospital, CMH is “significantly affected” by the pandemic. The hospital is in “tier three,” Easton said, a ranking that indicates that although it is being affected, it has not yet curtailed any programs.

If case numbers continue to rise, however, the hospital will move into “tier four,” in which case it will need to redeploy doctors and other staff and begin putting patients into space not usually used to care for patients.

“I try very hard not to be ‘the sky is falling.’ People ... get weary from that conversation,” Easton said. But “we’re in a very critical juncture, and we’re going into a holiday.”

If Thanksgiving gatherings trigger a significant rise in case numbers over the coming weeks, “the whole region will be deeply challenged,” she said. “As a region, we can’t handle a peak on top of a peak.”

Easton said that the hospital system’s respiratory diagnostic clinics, where people get tested for COVID-19, have been seeing more than 200 people a day, and the percentage testing positive has climbed, she said.

“There’s over 1,000 people right now in Caldwell County who have active disease. That really kind of means one in 80 people in Caldwell County are infectious right now,” and those are the cases we know about, she said.

Those numbers don’t include people who have no symptoms and don’t know that they are infected by the virus and can spread it to others.

The Caldwell County Health Department has been reporting high daily numbers on new COVID-19 cases. On Thursday alone, 62 people tested positive for the virus.

“It’s a very high-risk time — the highest-risk time since this pandemic started in Caldwell County,” Easton said.

Easton urged that people follow CDC guidelines for their Thanksgiving gatherings and to wear masks when in public.

“We know masks work. We are taking care of COVID patients every day. Our employees are not getting sick by taking care of COVID patients because they’re wearing masks. People are getting sick in the community because they’re not wearing masks,” she said.

She said her son, Nick, who plays football for the New Orleans Saints, played on the offensive line last week, and a defensive player he was up against received COVID-19 results after the game that showed he was positive for the virus.

“So my son has been wearing a mask in his own home all week long so that he protects this family as he goes through this period of waiting to see if he was exposed in his football game,” Easton said. “That’s how we have to be. We have to be very protective. It’s really not that big of a deal — just wear a mask. If we need to wear a mask in our own home around our family, … that’s what needs to happen.”

Easton said that there is hope on the horizon. The hospital recently introduced a promising new treatment for patients at high risk of complications and hospitalization.

And two companies have announced the vaccines they developed appear to be highly effective, though health officials have said in public reports that neither will be widely available to the public until well into 2021.

Caldwell UNC Health Care will receive its first shipment of vaccine in mid-December, but it will be administered to front-line health care professionals, Easton said.

Easton said that while she wasn’t sure when a vaccine will be available locally for the general public, the start of vaccine distribution could signal the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

“But, it would be so disappointing to find your family members … in our ICU sick weeks before” the vaccine comes out, she said. “This is the time to hunker down and stick with it. It’s not the time to let fatigue set in.”

Reporter Kara Fohner can be reached at 828-610-8721.

Reporter Kara Fohner can be reached at 828-610-8721.