U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams and U.S. Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services Eric D. Hargan visited Mercy Medical Center Thursday. The roundtable aimed to provide an opportunity for government officials to speak about the challenges health care providers are facing in Stark County in dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, and for residents to ask questions.
By Jessica Holbrook
Area hospitals are worried they won't have the supplies they need to rapidly test patients for COVID-19.
Mercy Medical Center will run out of the needed fast-test materials by the end of the week.
That lack of equipment means that Mercy will have to send COVID tests to larger medical centers for processing, delaying results for days, said Thomas Strauss Mercy's interim CEO and CEO of the Sisters of Charity Health System.
"The biggest limiting factor in us being able to address this pandemic aggressively is the ability to test our own patients," he said.
Strauss voiced those concerns Thursday during a roundtable discussion on the novel coronavirus pandemic with U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams and U.S. Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services Eric Hargan.
They were joined by U.S. Rep. Anthony Gonzalez, R-Rocky River, and U.S. Rep. Bob Gibbs, R-Lakeville, as well officials from Mercy and the Aultman Health Foundation.
Testing is a problem statewide, Ed Roth, CEO of the Aultman Health Foundation, agreed.
Mercy is counting tests every day to see if they'll have enough to get through the next day, added Mercy Medical Center Senior Vice President and Chief Nursing Officer Barbara Yingling.
Both hospitals are feeling the pressure, she said. "That's very disappointing and discouraging" when professional athletes are taking rapid tests daily.
The U.S. is only utilizing about 30% of its testing capacity, Adams said. "This is very concerning for both of us to hear this."
Adams and Hargan promised to address the issue.
The federal government is relying on states to tell them what they need, Adams said.
Adams and Hargan used their visit Thursday to push the importance of the flu vaccine, offer updates on a coronavirus vaccine, and urge folks to continue to wear masks, wash their hands and keep a safe distance from others.
It is vital to get a flu vaccine this winter, Adams said.
"This will be the most important flu season of our lifetimes," he said.
Adams urged Gonzalez and Gibbs to use their "bully pulpit" to push the importance of flu vaccines. Flu patients take up thousands of hospital beds and the influenza virus has similar symptoms to the novel coronavirus.
If someone gets the flu vaccine, they'll be more likely to get the COVID-19 vaccine when it's available, he said.
About 800 people died Wednesday from the coronavirus. Every day there is a delay in vaccination, 500 to 1,000 more people will die across the country, he said.
Hargan said that "good news" is coming soon about a coronavirus vaccine.
Months after President Donald Trump said the United States would have a vaccine by early next year "we are still on track for the most hopeful track we had envisioned. We are very close," he said.
The vaccine is being developed and tested so quickly because every step of the process — research and development, manufacturing capacity, testing — is happening at once, he said.
The vaccine trials also are much larger than what is typical, involving 30,000 to 60,000 people compared to the typical 3,000, Adams said.
Trials will move 10-times faster if they involve 10 times as many people, he said.
The safety of the vaccine isn't being compromised, Adams said.
There needs to be more education on that topic. Right now, all health officials hear is fear about how quickly the vaccine is being created, Yingling said.
"I wonder if that will change Nov. 4," Adams quipped, referencing the upcoming presidential election.
Area hospitals are already working with state officials on a distribution plan for the vaccine, Yingling said.
Adams also urged hospital employees and staff to lead by example in combating the coronavirus, by wearing masks, washing hands, and keeping a safe distance from others.
Now also is the time to make plans for the holidays, and really consider if family gatherings are worth the risk, he said.
Mercy and Aultman officials shared their coronavirus struggles.
Local officials also shared Ohio's coronavirus numbers with Adams and Hargan and explained the state's color-coded heat map.
Stark County has seen an increased number of hospitalizations. Mercy had 24 positive COVID-19 patients Thursday compared to seven on Sept. 30 and 11 on Oct. 11, Yingling said.
"It's obviously very concerning to hear those numbers and how they’re growing," she said.
Area health officials have been told to prepare for a surge of patients in the next 12 to 16 weeks, and are worried about flu and COVID-19 comingling.
If cases continue to rise, and Ohio counties hit the highest level — purple or level 4, schools could close. That will put an extra burden on employees who are also caretakers, Strauss said.
Increasing transmission isn't a reason to cancel in-person classes at schools or colleges or keep workers at home, Adams said.
Recent studies suggest transmission rates are lower in schools and colleges. And people are more likely to follow mitigation efforts at work than at home, he said.
College students who have vulnerable loved ones at home may be better off spending the holidays on campus, he added.
Hospital officials also spoke about the financial hardship that's come with COVID-19.
When the hospital had to suspend elective surgeries, it cut into the entire revenue stream, Strauss said.
Pandemic relief funds have helped the hospital get through the pandemic, but now health systems are struggling with how to pay back that money, he said.
He asked government officials to think about those hospitals struggling financially, especially those with high percentages of Medicare and Medicaid patients, especially while health insurance companies are "printing dollars."
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