Exhausted, overwhelmed and bracing for more, healthcare workers beg Ohio to take COVID-19 seriously

Virus Outbreak US Surge
Posted at 2:01 PM, Nov 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-19 19:48:28-05

Ohio’s COVID-19 numbers are bad, Gov. Mike DeWine confirmed again Thursday. The scenes inside its hospitals are worse.

Hours before his statewide 10 p.m. curfew was scheduled to begin, DeWine dedicated most of his news conference to first-hand testimony from healthcare workers treating record numbers of COVID-19 patients while bracing for even more.

“If you knew that a storm surge of epic proportions was headed in your direction, you would evacuate,” said Ohio Health senior VP Cheryl Herbert. “You would leave the area. You would run away. Healthcare workers cannot run away.”

Herbert compared the coming wave to a tsunami. Bruce White, CEO of the Mount Vernon-based Knox Community Hospital, said his workers resembled exhausted football players squaring up to finish their fourth quarter. Erin Russo, who leads the nursing staff at Memorial Ohio, recalled the old metaphor of running a marathon and then dismissed it.

These days it’s more like the Iditarod, a 938-mile dogsled race across Alaska’s harshest terrain.

“And, honestly, the dogs are tired,” Russo said, at times becoming visibly emotional. “Endurance is finite, and nurses are human.”

The Ohio Department of Health reported 7,787 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday. The actual number could be higher, DeWine said, because the state is waiting to double-check the results of 12,000 antigen tests — a type of test that returns faster but statistically less accurate results than the most commonly used methods.

About 3,829 patients are currently hospitalized, 943 of them in intensive care.

Russo, White and Herbert all shared stories of fear, stress and exhaustion from inside the healthcare system. Nurses are usually the only people allowed to be near a COVID-19 patient when that person dies, White said.

Herbert discussed the low levels of available staffing at many hospitals and emphasized the burden the out-of-control pandemic places on rural areas in particular. If a patient needs to be transferred from a rural healthcare system to a larger one with more specialized care, their doctors may call dozens of hospitals before locating an available bed.

Russo recalled struggling to communicate with staff and patients through full suits of personal protective equipment. Patients who have dementia and COVID-19 often don’t understand why they are in the hospital, she said.

“I don’t know that I can articulate what it feels like for a nurse and for our ancillary staff members to have that barrier,” she added.

All three begged Ohioans to rediscover the vigilance they’d practiced in March and April, during the earliest days of the pandemic.

November might feel like a return to that time for many Ohioans, Herbert acknowledged, as governments begin to enact some new restrictions and some school districts shift back into remote learning. It’s not. It’s actually much worse, she said. The stakes are much higher.

To help, Herbert continued: “Stay home, wear your mask when you go out, stay socially distanced and do not gather for Thanksgiving, as hard as I understand that will be.

“If you haven’t had COVID, be grateful. If you’ve had COVID and recovered, be grateful. There are thousands who haven’t.”

“They seem like miniscule tasks,” Russo said. “But to us it can make the greatest difference.”

DeWine’s 10 p.m. curfew will close most retail businesses at that time, allowing them to reopen at 5 a.m. Grocery stores and pharmacies may operate outside these hours, and Ohioans performing an essential task such as going to work or school may break curfew to do it.

However, DeWine said earlier in the week, most Ohioans should take it as their cue to stay at home. Law enforcement will be ready to break up groups gathered after 10 and can fine violators up to $750 for a curfew violation.