Athens County recorded another death from coronavirus on Tuesday, bringing the county’s overall COVID death toll to 61. According to the Ohio Department of Health, the deceased was in their 40s, the first recorded death in Athens County for that age group.
Coronavirus cases continue to rise precipitously in Athens County; 265 new cases were reported Sept. 3 through Sept. 7.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rate Athens County’s transmission risk as “high.”
Among current cases, 109 people who tested positive were children under 19; 73 were in their 20s; 23 in their 30s; 20 in their 40s; 17 in their 50s; 13 in their 60s; 6 in their 70s; and 4 aged 80 and older, according to ODH data.
According to data published Tuesday, Athens County has 820 active cases and 5,348 recovered cases. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Athens County has reported 6,229 total cases of COVID-19, with 232 people hospitalized.
As of Tuesday, 45.46% of Athens County residents had begun the vaccination process and 42.36% have completed either one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine or two doses of another type.
Ohio reported 4,876 cases on Tuesday, remaining within a 21-day average of 4,629 daily reported cases. The situation is equally rough at Ohio University. The university’s protocol directs students with COVID symptoms or receive a positive result from a COVID test to call COVID Operations. Last week, calls increased by 90% and the system received more report forms than it had in the entire previous month, according to an email health update issued Tuesday afternoon by the university’s coronavirus czar, Dr. Gillian Ice.
As a result of the surge in contacts, the email said, callers were waiting an average of 20 minutes to reach a “COVID Campus Liaison” — and could be on hold for up to two hours. To manage wait times, the university has switched to “surge processing,” Ice said in an email responding to questions from the NEWS. In this scenario, operators “provide in-the-moment guidance, take notes on individual cases, and triage a response plan.” An on-call “strike team” of part-time COVID Campus Liaisons reviews the calls and reports chronologically to determine the priority of response; students living in residence halls and anyone with symptoms are at the top of the list, Ice said.
COVID Operations usually responds the same day, Ice said in the email, but the surge in cases combined with the Monday holiday created a backlog. “We have processed all incident reports, and call-backs are in the queue,” she wrote. “We are still working through voicemails.” Delays in returning calls and responding to reports may create short-term undercounts in COVID data, Ice said, but not for more than a day.
COVID Operations also is expanding its staff, Ice wrote. It’s hiring more part-time case managers and has “extended offers to six additional full-time case managers,” she wrote. The department is looking within the university as well, Ice said: Undergraduate and graduate students in public health are being trained to help with case management (which will count toward program practical experience requirements) and seeking help with data management from students in the Voinovich School for Leadership and Public Affairs.
Students are generally cooperating with the university’s mask requirements, Ice said, although some have been referred to the Office of Community Standards and Student Responsibility (what used to be called “the Judiciaries”). “They begin with a warning and proceed with a progressive discipline process,” she wrote.
When asked about rumors of an unmasked student at the Ping Center being identified on the gym’s video cameras and banned from Ping, Ice confirmed that video surveillance and blacklisting are among the university’s investigatory and punitive measures.
“Students found in violation of University Well-Being and Recreation facility policies and the Student Code of Conduct are subject to a temporary facility and program suspension with University Well-Being and Recreation,” Ice wrote. “If CSSR feels they need additional information in their process or investigation, they or University Well-Being and Recreation can request video surveillance from [the Ohio University Police Department].”
OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital
In her Tuesday public health update email, Ice warned that hospitals in southeast Ohio are “at a tipping point,” with admissions at their highest point since Christmas 2020 and ICU capacity nearly 90% full. Athens County is in Region 7, which includes OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital, Adena Regional Medical Center in Chillicothe, Holzer Medical Centers in Gallipolis and Jackson, and Southern Ohio Medical Center in Portsmouth.
“In rural Ohio, where most of our campuses are located, one in four hospitalizations are COVID patients, and one in three ICU patients are people battling COVID to stay alive,” Ice said in the email.
O’Bleness is one of several OhioHealth hospitals have have canceled elective surgeries, a hospital spokesperson said.
“Due to the upward trend in COVID-19 hospitalizations throughout Ohio, some OhioHealth hospitals, including O’Bleness Hospital, will temporarily pause elective surgeries that require an overnight stay to free up staff and hospital capacity,” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “Due to the fluid nature of this fourth surge, we will continually monitor capacity and pause or resume elective surgeries with an overnight stay as needed.”
According to data from the CDC, Athens County experienced 20 new hospital admissions between Aug. 31 and Sept. 6 — a 33% increase over the previous week. The CDC’s dashboard for the county shows 58% of ICU beds used over that period. Ohio Department of Health records show O’Bleness with 10 ICU/CCU beds.
While not providing or confirming specific figures, the O’Bleness spokesperson said that the hospital is not concerned about capacity.
“One of the advantages of being part of a large healthcare organization is our ability to move patients, if needed, to other hospitals with additional capacity,” the statement said. “While we always strive to provide care close to home, in times like these, we have the ability to lean on all of our system’s hospitals to ensure patients get the care they need, when they need it, if we should reach capacity.”
When asked about reports of nurses working additional shifts to cope with rising admissions, the spokesperson would not confirm if that was happening.
“Helping our associates to take time off to recharge and recover is important to us,” the statement read. “That being said, we offer incentives to encourage workers to pick up additional shifts to ensure adequate coverage.”
A tent erected in the parking lot by the emergency room recently was not used for triage, the spokesperson said.
“We erected a canopy tent briefly to serve as registration area for patients who came to the Emergency Department with low acuity,” the statement read. “After these patients registered, we asked them to wait in their cars rather than inside the waiting room. This was done in an effort to keep patients socially distant and to provide shade.”
However, additional beds were brought into the Emergency Room on Monday, Aug. 30, the spokesperson confirmed. That had led to rumors on social media about beds in the hospital hallways.
Running out of test kits
Ice's public health email also noted that OhioHealth urgent care offices in Athens County were running out of rapid COVID tests.
The free test kits distributed through branches of the Athens County Public Library were all gone at the end of the day on Tuesday, Director Nick Tepe said.
“But we’re expecting more to come in any time,” he said.
Demand for the kits is high: The Athens branch received 1,000 kits last Tuesday and every one of them was gone by the end of the week, Tepe said.
The Ohio Department of Health purchases the kits using coronavirus relief funds and supplies them to public libraries statewide, he said.
Because of the surge in coronavirus infections, all county library branches will return to curbside-only service effective today, Tepe said. All library services are available curbside, he noted — including computers.
“Just call ahead,” he said.
This article was updated Sept. 8 to add information on Ohio University, OhioHealth O'Bleness Hospital and Athens County Public Libraries that was included in the print edition. It also was updated to expand information on Ohio University's COVID Operations functioning and disciplinary measures for unmasked students.