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Local doctor says mask-wearing, social distancing are crucial to keeping Cincinnati-area hospitals fully staffed

Posted at 5:10 PM, Nov 06, 2020

CINCINNATI — With COVID-19 cases breaking records almost daily in Ohio and new cases popping up all over the Tri-State, hospital officials are worried the most critical part of the healthcare infrastructure — the hospital staff — may be at risk.

Dr. Steve Feagins, medical director for Hamilton County Public Health and chief clinical officer for Mercy Health, said the major concern at the beginning of the pandemic was keeping enough equipment on standby. Ventilators, beds and ICU capacity were all precious.

“We know that we have that for now,” he said. “Our critical limiting factor is staffing.”

Feagins said at any given time, more than 5% of the staff of the main hospitals in Hamilton County, excluding Cincinnati Children’s Medical Center, is out because of COVID-19. He said it’s happening because people in the community aren’t taking proper precautions to protect healthcare workers.

“It’s individuals walking around without masks, Feagins said. "It’s individuals who are being a part of small groups and even large groups that are not social distancing. That’s the biggest risk to the critical infrastructure.”

He said although hospital staff are fully protected and wearing the right PPE while they’re at work, they’re at the most risk when they're off the clock.

“We definitely see the occasional person who is not able to work.” Feagins said. “When that happens to be from a COVID-19 infection, it’s not from the hospital or workplace in healthcare, it’s from the community.

Tammy Potts knows how critical hospital staff are when a loved one is sick. Her father was hospitalized with COVID-19 early on in the pandemic.

“We know that he had the best care team taking care of him – doctors, nurses, therapists, chaplains,” she said. “Having them there really made the difference in the outcome whether my dad came home and got to be with us and resume his normal life.”

Even though her dad is doing much better now, Potts is still concerned about the rise of daily cases and what that might mean inside hospitals.

“A doctor instead of taking care of two patients has now got 20 or whatever,” she said. “The numbers are much higher because the other doctor he works with or she works with is out sick or potentially sick.”

Feagins said the community spread could affect how many healthcare professionals and other first responders are helping outside of those hospital settings, too.

“I’m not just talking about hospital workers. I’m talking about 911 operators, first responders, law enforcement, EMS,” Feagins said. “It’s one thing to thank the heroes. It’s another thing to protect them. Please protect them by wearing your mask.”

Another big potential spreader of the coronavirus that Feagins and other health experts are worried about: The holiday season. Traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations often involve traveling across state lines, gathering in large indoor groups and sharing food with them — all activities that can rapidly spread COVID-19.

"The things that we have to do now, we have to do during the holidays,” Feagins said.

It’s a concept that Potts said she can get behind for the sake of never repeating the horrible time when she almost lost her dad.

“Being safe and being careful and doing what we’re asked to do by the health professionals makes a difference between one Christmas or no Christmas at all,” she said.