The state of COVID in Louisville: A Q&A with Dr. Valerie Briones-Pryor

Since March, Dr. Valerie Briones-Pryor has been on the frontlines of the coronavirus outbreak in Kentucky, running a COVID unit at UofL’s Jewish Hospital. On Jan. 7, LEO caught up with Briones-Pryor to talk about the current status of the pandemic. She spoke about how the hospital’s current wave of patients has been fueled by small gatherings, how the vaccine has provided a boost of morale for medical workers and the precautions you need to continue to take after you get vaccinated, among other topics. Below are excerpts of what she said during the conversation.    

On how small gatherings are fueling cases in her unit.
“When I came back from Christmas, there was a whole new set of patients on the COVID floor, and every single one of them were telling me, ‘Well, yes, we did an early Christmas, we were staying within our family, we didn’t think so-and-so was sick.’ And even all this week, I’ve already heard four stories, ‘Well, so-and-so came in for Christmas and he didn’t know he had COVID, or we went to so-and-so’s house and we thought they weren’t feeling bad, but two days later they got sick, and now we’re sick.’ People think that, ‘Oh, I’m going to go visit my family,’ they assume that their family, because it’s family, are fine. But, you don’t really know.”

On opening a second unit at the beginning of the surge in early October.
“We’ve been fortunate that we’ve been able to stay within those numbers. We haven’t had to open a third unit. There are times where we have been worried though, because the numbers have gone up. But then the two weeks after the holiday goes by, and then things level out a little bit. But then the next holiday comes up, and we know it’s going to happen again. And that’s where we are right now. We’re seeing the Christmas rush. And next week, we’ll see the New Year’s rush. I’m thankful that there are no more holidays, because we’re all tired, and we need a break, and I’m hoping people will get past wanting to be with others at the holidays and will stay put. People are getting vaccinated, so that’s wonderful, too. And we can finally get a handle on this, but I’m worried about how January is going to play out.”

On why you should get the vaccine, and how medical workers are leading the campaign to gain public trust.
“I’ve said this time and time again, COVID doesn’t care about you. It doesn’t care if you’re young, healthy, have a family, are well off. I mean, it is a great equalizer, in a sense, because you could be the healthiest person in the world, never had a medical problem, don’t need to take medicine, but you may be the one that ends up on the bed. I had a 101-year old, I love this story, from a nursing home that came to us, when there was a nursing home outbreak, and she had no symptoms. She didn’t even need oxygen. When you get COVID, we hope you’re going to be in the majority that does well, but you may not be. It really is kind of a crapshoot about how it’s going to affect you. If there’s an opportunity out there for us to protect you, to give you armor in this battle, why wouldn’t you wear it? Yeah, the technology is new, but it’s actually not new. It is technology that’s been used for cancer research for years. We’re not injecting a live virus in people. It doesn’t interfere with your DNA. You’re not going to turn into a zombie. It’s not a microchip where people are going to follow you — your cell phone does that for you. Millions of healthcare workers across the nation and the world are rolling up their sleeves to go get it, and they’re all just the same men and women, just like you. If we think we can do it, and my arm hasn’t fallen off yet, there’s no reason why it’s not going to be safe.”

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On the vaccine providing a boost of morale for medical workers.
“There’s a feeling of hope. A feeling of, ‘This may end, at some point.’ I mean, it’s not going to end anytime soon, but there may be an end in sight. We got to get through January, because we all knew January was going to be tough. But there is an end in sight. And, that, for the first time in a long time, was a good feeling to have — some kind of hope.”

On why it’s important to continue to follow safety measures after vaccination.
“We’re very limited to the number of people who are vaccinated at the present time. And the recommendation to get herd immunity, to really protect everybody, is that 70-80% of the population has to be vaccinated. So, we’re obviously not anywhere close to that right now. The wearing of masks, social distancing — still, still, still — is very important, if not just as important, because we can’t let our guard down, just because some of us have been vaccinated. And, the other thing is, just because I got a shot Monday, the full potential of that vaccine doesn’t really come in until a week from that. Just because you get your first shot, or your second shot, it doesn’t mean the day after, or the minute after, you all of a sudden have immunity. We’re still building all of that up. It’s important because you could still be carrying the virus on you. So, you might not get sick from it, but you might give it to somebody else who hasn’t been vaccinated yet. We know this virus is very contagious, so we have to protect others in the community, even though we ourselves have been protected or vaccinated.”

On what the pandemic should teach us.
“We all have a responsibility in our community not just for ourselves, but to take care of others. If we want to live good, healthy lives. If we want to be able to go to our favorite restaurants. Go to the gym. Do the things that we did in our normal lives, we have to do our part to get there. And that’s part of being a community. It’s not about one person, it’s about everybody. My hope is that the pandemic taught us that.” •