Local Officials Concerned with Lack of Protective Gear

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – State health officials say they knew places like nursing homes would be hotspots for coronavirus cases and assembled response teams accordingly, but the shortage of personal protection equipment is concerning local officials.

Dennis O’Hara, director of Mahoning County Emergency Management Agency, said the county is running low on personal protective equipment across the board – not only for long-term senior care sites, but also for hospitals and first responders. 

“We’ve requested more from the state and are actively working to obtain more, but we do have limited quantity,” O’Hara said during a conference call Tuesday.

Dr. Amy Acton, director of the Ohio Department Health, said officials and leaders from senior-care centers across the state have been working for weeks on how to best make use of scarce quantities of protection equipment, as well as on strategies to keep COVID-19 from spreading in long-term care facilities. 

“Nursing homes are struggling because they don’t have enough gear. The very little bit of gear we have left we’re trying to direct to them,” “We’ve been able to sort of squash the hotspots as they occur. Time will tell how well we do in that.”

O’Hara said the Mahoning County Commissioners have an agreement in place with Battelle Memorial Institute, a research and development lab in Columbus that received CDC approval for a decontamination system that can sterilize N95 masks for reuse up to 20 times. 

Masks are being sent to Batelle this week to extend the use of personal protective equipment to help alleviate the area’s shortage, O’Hara said, noting the county’s Emergency Operations Center is working with health-care organizations to collect the masks and to follow Batelle’s procedures for marking and packaging masks for delivery.

“We still have issues with the total amounts of PPE, but this is one avenue that is sure to help,” he said. 

The availability of tests for coronavirus also are in short supply throughout the state. Dr. James Kravec, chief clinical officer for Mercy Health-Youngstown, said the organization is continuing to advance its testing, using five resources for tests and the in-house Abbott Lab, which can get results in 15 to 20 minutes.

“But the volume is still not there as we would like it to be. I think most people would like to have more testing. I think the best way to get back to really get back to society is to be able to have more people tested,” Kravec said. “The health systems and individual practices are doing their best, but we just are limited on our availability. If that were to get better, we could test 20,000 people in the next two to three weeks. That’s how we can know who’s sick and who’s not sick and who to quarantine and the like.”

Acton said because COVID-19 is so contagious that workers, caregivers, doctors or people who are asymptomatic may be carrying the virus from the community into facilities. Restrictions on visitation to nursing homes was issued by the governor March 11, but many health-care professionals and aides work at multiple facilities.

Kravec previously said long-term care facilities have their own medical directors and, “I’m confident medical professionals are taking the proper precautions and this is not an issue.”

Cassandra Valentini, community liaison for Direction Home of Eastern Ohio, an agency that works with seniors and people with disabilities, said the state has requested for facilities to have consistent staffing to cutdown on the amount of people coming in and out of facilities and to have a specific area or part of a unit to place residents who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Outbreaks of COVID-19, the disease spread by the coronavirus, at long-term care facilities has become a national issue as mounting deaths and outbreaks have been hard to track due to a lack of reporting. Gov. Mike DeWine issued an order Monday requiring long-term care centers to notify residents and families within 24 hours if a resident or staff member tests positive for COVID-19. A list of facilities will be posted at Coronavirus.oh.gov.

Mahoning County Health Commissioner Ryan Tekac said he is awaiting word from the state on how it is going to handle that procedure. He said there are long-term care facilities in the county that have positive cases of COVID-19, but until he receives more information and the order from the state, he can’t provide details. 

While Acton warned people to not overreact to reports of outbreaks at facilities due to stigma and fear, Valentini said such information may alleviate some of the fears and anxiety family members have shared in calls to the ombudsman office. 

“Ombudsmen think that information needs to be shared and communicated because sometimes a lack of communication can make unnecessary fears for family members,” Valentini said. “Our hope is that by the governor giving this information out will put some people’s fears to rest.”

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.