EDITOR'S NOTE: This story is in response to a reader-submitted question through Open Source, a platform where readers can submit questions to the staff. Reader Judy Blandi asked, "We have not heard anything about the preparedness of local hospitals for coronavirus patients. Can you do a story on that?"
MANSFIELD — Local hospitals have long prepared for a pandemic to come to Richland County.
With the official arrival of the COVID-19 virus in Richland County, action plans are falling into place at hospitals across the county. This includes testing procedures, visitor restrictions and effective communication both internally and externally on the risks of the disease.
Both OhioHealth and Avita Health System have response teams in place to respond to a public health crisis. Such teams were also mobilized during the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009 and the Ebola outbreak in 2014.
"We maintain a status of constant preparedness for evolving epidemic or infectious diseases," said Dr. Bruce Vanderhoff, senior vice president and chief medical officer of OhioHealth.
"Those previous experiences allowed us to develop an ongoing plan of preparedness, including not only scenario planning but testing our system to assure if and when something came to our community that was an emerging infectious disease, we'd be prepared for that."
Vanderhoff added OhioHealth has formed an emergency clinical response team, an elite group of healthcare providers committed to being very well-versed and trained in how to care for an unknown infectious disease. The health system also has a command system structure constantly monitoring what's happening on a global, national and local level to ensure all care sites have the equipment and personnel needed.
"The nice thing about having that team is they're ready to deploy to any OhioHealth hospital where a patient suspected of suffering from COVID-19 might arrive, step in to provide direct patient care to those initial cases, and then serve as support and expert trainers on the ground to reinforce personnel protective techniques in ways that they can stay safe while keeping the patient well cared for and the public safe," Vanderhoff said.
Avita is also prepared to receive patients with COVID-19 infection, said Amanda Hatcher, director of marketing and community relations.
"We formed a multi-disciplinary coronavirus response team and are following CDC and ODH guidance to mitigate the exposure and spread of illness," Hatcher said.
"For several weeks, we’ve been screening patients system-wide for COVID-19, providing 24/7 infection control and prevention coverage, maintaining inventories of personal protective equipment, and providing staff education."
The Avita COVID-19 Response Team (ACRT) - an internal multi-disciplinary emergency management committee - meets daily to establish protocols, implement precautions, and update contingency plans in preparation for a potential influx of patients with COVID-19 symptoms and travel history and/or exposure.
Both hospital systems have also implemented strict visitor policies and other measures to mitigate the spread of the disease:
But the biggest challenge in preparedness, across the country and the globe, is the ability to test for COVID-19. There simply aren't enough COVID-19 tests to meet demand, according to Vanderhoff.
"This is a new virus, so in very short order laboratories had to develop the capability to be able to test for this new virus, and that's not a simple thing to do," he said. "It's only been possible to get this testing worldwide because of advanced DNA and RNA technology to map the genome of the virus itself.
"If you think about how new this virus is, to be able to go from not even knowing it was really around months ago to being able to have this expanding testing capability, that's light-speed."
Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton said Sunday that Ohio is still facing a major shortage of testing kits for the COVID-19 coronavirus. Due to the shortage, tests are being reserved for the highest risk, hospitalized patients.
In light of this shortage, Vanderhoff said OhioHealth has been working broadly in the primary care community to provide guidelines for patients most at-risk, and limiting tests to those individuals. But another barrier is specialized protective equipment is required to even administer the test to mitigate the risk of spread.
"It's not really something the typical primary care office is structured to be able to do, particularly given the national limits on protective equipment," Vanderhoff said.
If you think you have COVID-19
Symptoms of COVID-19 range from being mildly sick with fever, cough and shortness of breath, to being severely ill. Most people only develop mild symptoms, but people over 60 and those who have other health condition can develop more serious symptoms, including pneumonia, which can be fatal.
According to Richland Public Health, you should call your medical provider if you:
• Feel sick with fever, cough or have difficulty breathing
• Have been close to someone infected with the new coronavirus
• Or have recently traveled to a location known to have active cases of COVID-19
Call your medical provider before your visit to discuss your risks and symptoms. This will help limit exposure to other people and prepare your provider for an evaluation. If you are sick, do not travel or go out to reduce the possibility of exposing others to your illness.
"If you are feeling very, very ill, going to an emergency room is the appropriate thing to do," Vanderhoff said. "But for the vast majority of people with a mild illness, what we should do is pick up the phone and call our primary care provider and ask them for further guidance."
Most people with a mild case of the disease will be able to recover safely at home, Vanderhoff said. During this time, it is especially important to stay home, keep distance from others and avoid situations where coughing or sneezing might cause someone we care about to become ill.
"The best thing that we can do to not only keep ourselves well but keep our communities well are to be mindful of washing our hands regularly or using an alcohol hand sanitizer, avoid touching our faces, and think about social distancing," Vanderhoff said. "It's simple, but we don't practice them consistently enough. And if we do, we're going to help a lot to prevent this illness from spreading."