The Union County Health Department is feeling the stress of a local surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
“The story is just so overwhelming at this point that there’s not much more to be said,” Health Commissioner Jason Orcena began his report to the Board of Health Wednesday.
There is a team of six to eight UCHD staff members that have been working seven days a week to keep up with new COVID-19 cases, Orcena said. He added that it’s not unusual for staff to work six days a week and many employees have worked several extended weeks in a row.
“There is widespread transmission in our community at this point – dramatically so,” Orcena said.
Union County has now experienced six deaths related to COVID-19, according to data from the Ohio Department of Health. There have been 1,582 cases locally, 72 of which have required hospitalization.
He said the influx of cases is “requiring an evolution in our response” to the pandemic.
Disease investigation is being prioritized, Orcena said, as it is “critically important.”
At this point, 15 out of 45 staff members are trained to do disease investigation. All staff members are now trained to do contact tracing.
In order to maintain their capacity to conduct disease investigation, he said the agency will need to shift how they handle contact tracing.
Orcena said the health department is working with employers and schools to train them to handle contact tracing and notify contacts of infected individuals. Then, UCHD staff will verify their information.
He said the health department is also encouraging those who test positive for COVID-19 to reach out to their own close contacts to alert them they were exposed to the virus.
The health commissioner noted that “the entire system is stretched or strained,” and some people who have tested positive are not getting a follow-up call until four to five days after their isolation has begun.
While staff is busy handling disease investigation and contact tracing, he said it is difficult to maintain case data.
Orcena noted that they must “hand-tabulate” information for every case, which requires additional man hours that are being prioritized elsewhere.
“The case surge we’ve dealt with the past two weeks has made it impossible to catch up with the data at this point,” Orcena said.
The health department previously updated local case numbers daily, but is now aiming to update them weekly.
Orcena said the spike in cases is likely affecting the ability of Lower Lights Christian Health Center, which partners with UCHD to offer drive-thru COVID-19 testing, to test everyone in the community who seeks testing.
He noted that over 40 people tested positive out of 300 tested at the pop-up testing offered by the Ohio National Guard in Union County on Nov. 10.
Since the health department began offering testing, Orcena said the local positivity rate has hovered around 5%. Recent testing events indicate it is over 10%.
With the “sharp increase in transmission,” he said it is unlikely that testing is actually capturing all the cases in the community.
“There are so many symptomatic people, we can’t actually get them all in,” the health commissioner said.
Director of Health Promotion and Planning Shawn Sech said people are turned away if the clinic runs out of time, tests or lab capacity to run the tests.
However, she said staff tries to hold a spot the next day for anyone who is turned away. Otherwise, they can also be referred to other Central Ohio testing locations.
Sech said Lower Lights has been trying to hire additional staff to expand their testing capacity since June. At this point, she said the health department is discussing using a Medical Reserve Corps volunteer to help swab people during testing.
Like UCHD employees, Orcena said school staffs are also being strained by the increase in cases.
“I won’t call it traumatic for our schools, but it has been a serious series of events,” he said.
Statewide, he said youth cases “have been marching steadily upward.” That trend is “eerily similar” to what is occurring in Union County, Orcena explained.
He said youth currently make up about 20% of cases in the county. The majority are among people within the 12-17 age group.
Orcena said he “can’t say school is or isn’t a transmission event at this point in time.”
It doesn’t appear that there is “rampant transmission” during school hours when safety precautions like face masks and social distancing are in place, he said.
There is “a lot of transmission” in younger grades, Orcena said, where it’s “harder to keep kids in ‘protective mode.’”
“It’s all but impossible for preschool age children, even early elementary in some cases,” he said.
It is clear, though, that social gatherings like dinner parties, Bible studies, birthday parties and slumber parties are large transmission events, Orcena said.
Due to the spike in youth cases, he noted that several local districts have had to cut transportation or limit food service because of positive tests or quarantines among staff members.
He said he expects the next couple of weeks are going to be “tough” for schools and the community at large.
“We were always concerned about the fall, but a real concern is post-holidays and we haven’t even had them yet,” Orcena said.
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