“This is not a drill.” Health officials say they might have to start canceling procedures

By: - November 20, 2020 1:00 am

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine. Photo courtesy The Ohio Channel.

Coronavirus cases in Ohio continue to snowball and now health officials say the strain is so great that any day now they might have to start canceling medical procedures.

They made that stark warning on a day when the state’s GOP lawmakers seemed to be living in another world, with House Republicans voting down a mask mandate in the Capitol and granting its approval to a Senate measure that would greatly reduce the governor’s power to impose orders in health emergencies such as the pandemic.

Incomplete data released Thursday showed that at 7,787, the number of new cases reported over the past 24 hours continues a weeklong trend of days in which new cases are near the state record of 8,071 that was reported last week.

More alarmingly, there were 343 new hospitalizations due to covid. That’s less than the record 386 reported nine days ago, but when patients are admitted to the hospital for coronavirus, they tend to stay for relatively long periods. So when there are extended stretches of days with high admissions, hospitals run out of beds.

They’re dangerously close to doing that now, officials said during Gov. Mike DeWine’s coronavirus press conference Thursday.

“We are on the doorstep of that,” said Bruce Vanderhoff, chief medical officer for the Ohio Department of Health. “I wish I had a crystal ball, and I could tell you it would be some defined period of time from now, but it’s not far away.”

So far, the situation isn’t at the point where it was in Italy in the spring when doctors had to decide whom to treat with limited resources or it is now in El Paso, Texas, where hundreds of bodies are piling up in mobile morgues.

But Knox Community Hospital CEO Bruce White said that beds are close to being full at his rural facility just as he’s losing the ability to turn to his medical neighbors for help because their facilities are filling up as well.

“We’re extremely close” to having to decide whether some get medical treatment while others have to wait, White said. “When I talk about intensive-care unit beds being full and flirting with that limit every day, we’re looking at the surgeries scheduled every day that would require an in-patient bed following the procedure. We have to guess about three or four days in advance: Are we going to have those beds?”

“Are we getting to the point where we have to start deferring surgeries like we did in March? I think we’re extremely close,” White said. “I think this it true of everyone in the state. This is not a drill.”

Cheryl Herbert is senior vice president at OhioHealth, one of the state’s largest hospital chains. She agreed, saying, “This is really almost a day-by-day decision for us at this point.”

More ominously than in the spring, Herbert said, the possible health rationing now won’t be because hospitals are running short on things like personal protective equipment. Now they’re running short on space and the personnel to staff it, she said.

“We asked them to run a marathon and now we’re asking them to run a marathon again,” DeWine said. “Every part of the system is under immense pressure.”

On a day when the United States passed the grim milestone of more than a quarter million dead of coronavirus, some parts of the state government took steps to respond. A 10 p.m. – 5 a.m. curfew took effect Thursday night, although DeWine has stipulated that he doesn’t anticipate much enforcement.

Also, state health officials on Thursday moved Franklin County, home to Columbus, to the highest level of alert, marking the first time any county in the state has been so designated. It was the culmination of an inexorable spread of the disease across Ohio.

But as DeWine and health officials urged people to abide by the curfew, wear masks and avoid Thanksgiving gatherings, House Republicans seemed to inhabit an alternate reality in which state business could be conducted indoors and mask-free despite frequent reports of prominent American Republicans catching the disease.



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Marty Schladen
Marty Schladen

Marty Schladen has been a reporter for decades, working in Indiana, Texas and other places before returning to his native Ohio to work at The Columbus Dispatch in 2017. He's won state and national journalism awards for investigations into utility regulation, public corruption, the environment, prescription drug spending and other matters.