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Summit County Medical Community Prepares for Coronavirus Surge

Cleveland Clinic Akron General prepares for a surge of patients with  COVID-19.
Cleveland Clinic Akron General prepares for a surge of patients with COVID-19.

The coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented in our lifetime. As a society, our reactions are mostly based on our emotions – worry about family and friends, fear for our jobs and anxiety over the long-term impact on our community.

But for healthcare workers who are used to dealing in facts, coronavirus is a battle against the unknown.

The absence of testing for coronavirus has become the new normal.  All of us, including the medical community, rely on data modeling.

What data is known is presented each day by Gov. Mike DeWine and Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton.

The modeling projects hospitalizations from the virus will peak here in early May.

Dr. Steven Brooks is the chief of staff at Cleveland Clinic Akron General, where he specializes in emergency medicine. A sense of expectancy is growing among the staff as the surge closes in, he said.

“We’re anxious. We’re waiting for it to come," Brooks said. "We know it’s coming, it’s just we are thrilled to have the time to get ready for it and get all our resources in place. But there is that anxious anticipation that we all have right now. “

In this calm before the storm, Summit County’s entire medical community has had all hands on deck, preparing for whatever comes.

“We’re used to knowing the science of the disease, knowing the natural history," said Dr. Robert McGregor, Akron Children’s Hospital chief medical officer. "And this time we don’t have a script and so that’s a little unsettling for our front line docs.”

He says the inability to test has tainted their efforts to prepare.

“That is what sets the stage for this," he said. " As a country, we weren’t as prepared for testing, so we’ve been operating blindly in the last several weeks.”

The virus doesn’t seem to sicken children like it does adults, but kids can be carriers. McGregor says that poses a special set of challenges.

“We have seen lots of children in the community get infected and many of them don’t even get tested," he said. "So it’s hard to know how many of them are out there.”

At least two Akron fire fighters have tested positive for COVID-19. Several others have been in quarantine. Like everywhere, that number is rising.

Fire Department spokeswoman Sierjie Lash said all Akron firefighters and paramedics are now being tested. 

“Our paramedics are especially since it’s in their faces right now with their fellow firefighters and paramedics," she said. "They’re a little extra vigilant.”

The department takes workers' temperatures at least once per day, Lash said, and for some, three times a day. The department also changed its policy for personal protective equipment even though it’s in short supply everywhere.

“We initially started off using PPE on just certain calls and now we use it on every call," she said. "People can be silent carriers, asymptomatic but we’re trying our best with our PPE - with masks and gloves on every single run - fire and medics."

Children's Hospital  must weigh risk against supply, McGregor said. 

“If we start using the most conservative measures on every patient right now, without replenishing those stores, we would be at risk when the biggest concern arises and the highest risk to our caregivers,” he said.

Employees at Children’s feel the love from the community, he said, as people across Summit County have begun sewing masks at home to donate to medical workers.

“We allowed the staff to wear cloth masks. But they’re not a cure all and I want to be sure people recognize it’s not a replacement for PPE," he said. "It’s just one more barrier that keeps asymptomatic people from spreading it to the rest of us.”

The data shows Ohio is taking social distancing seriously, which Lash says benefits  everyone.

“COVID-19 is new for everybody," she said. "When they say we’re in this together, we are all, literally across the globe, we are all in this together.”

When the surge inevitably comes, Akron Children’s staff will be all in," McGregor said. 

“If a plane crashed in Perkins Square we would all be out there doing what we could do," he said. " It’s not our comfort zone, it’s not necessarily our scope. But if our adult colleagues needed us to do things we would make arrangements to do that.”

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