National Guard increasing local presence as COVID situation ‘very critical and tremendously stressful’

The Ohio National Guard is redeploying more than 400 servicemembers from northeast Ohio to the Dayton, Cincinnati and southern Ohio region as the COVID-19 situation improves in Cleveland and worsens here, state officials said Thursday.

In the last week, southwest Ohio reported a 14% increase in ICU admissions with COVID and western Ohio reported a 13% increase, said Ohio Department of Health Director Bruce Vanderhoff.

This has state and local health officials sounding the alarm that the overall statewide decline in hospitalizations doesn’t reflect what’s happening in southwest Ohio, where predominantly unvaccinated COVID patients are increasingly filling hospital beds.

“Things continue in our Dayton area to be very critical and tremendously stressful,” Miami Valley Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. Roberto Colon said. “The pace of new cases have not slowed down like we’ve seen in other areas, and that continues to lead to significant numbers of hospitalizations.”

The Greater Dayton Area Hospital Association on Thursday reported that area hospitals are seeing record numbers. On Wednesday, there were 565 local COVID hospitalizations and 105 patients in area ICUs. A total of 345 area COVID patients died in the previous 28 days.

National Guard shifting resources

Ohio National Guard Adjutant Maj. Gen. John Harris said it will take about a week to disengage guardsmen from hospitals in the northeast and deploy them to this region.

“At the start of this operation, Gov. DeWine’s guidance to me was very clear. He told me, No. 1, let’s get into the hospitals as rapidly as we can to assist with this surge. And the second piece was deploy the guard to the places where we can have the most impact to relieve the stress on the hospitals.”

An Ohio National Guard spokeswoman said they are planning to add about 50 staff for non-clinical hospital and testing support in the Dayton/Springfield area in the next week. Those numbers could change as they work with the Ohio Department of Health and Ohio Hospital Association to assess shifting needs, she said.

More than 2,000 Ohio National Guard members have been deployed throughout the state to help hospitals battling staffing shortages amid the Omicron surge. There are currently about 120 supporting in the Dayton/Springfield area.

Miami Valley Hospital is one of the facilities across the state currently receiving support from the Ohio National Guard. Guard members arrived at the hospital on Dec. 30 for orientation and have been helping with food service, patient transport, environmental services and other non-clinical duties. It’s not clear how long the National Guard will be deployed at the hospital.

The mission has had a big impact on members, with some expressing interest in working in health care in their civilian jobs in the future, Harris said.

“To be able to have an impact so close to home in their own communities has always had a profound impact on the morale of our troops,” he added. “They feel they’re making an important contribution on a day-to-day basis, and the impact and the results are immediate.”

Vaccination urged

Colon said the increase in patients has been taxing for staff, physicians and nurses as health care workers face the start of a third year in the pandemic.

“One of the most telling things I’ve heard is from physicians who have had prior military time, who have been deployed in forward locations, comparing this to the situation. And in many cases noting that this is more stressful because the operational tempo doesn’t slow down and continues at such a high pace,” Colon said.

“We are still seeing the high rates of hospitalization, but they’re not distributed equally among everybody in the community,” Colon said. “We are seeing that 83% who are in the hospital for COVID-related illnesses are unvaccinated. That stresses how important these vaccines are at keeping people safe and the incredible impact on resources.”

Dayton Children’s Hospital is caring for a record number of COVID patients. Last week, the hospital had 63 patients with coronavirus, with 19 of them in the pediatric intensive care unit, according to Dayton Children’s. Only four of the patients admitted for COVID were vaccinated.

Amid the surge, Miami Valley Hospital workers are now using a space underneath a canopy under the entrance, which now has tented walls set up.

A spokeswoman said “out of an abundance of caution and proactive planning, we enclosed our existing canopy to provide extra space during a time where our emergency department is seeing a high volume of patients.”

To reduce the pressure placed on hospitals, Colon stressed the importance of getting vaccinated and boosted, as well as wearing face masks and social distancing.

“Adding to the immunity right now, reducing the opportunity for this virus to go to other people and potentially generate a new variant can actually help reduce the onset of a new variant in the future,” he said. “That right now is what we can do to help prevent some additional variants from emerging.”

While the situation in northeast Ohio is causing statewide hospitalizations to decrease, Ohio is still at a level higher than any other time during the pandemic and isn’t quite out of the Omicron surge.

“If you look at our numbers now, even though we’ve seen improvement up in northeast Ohio, we’re still looking at numbers that are north of our peak surge back in 2020,” Vanderhoff said. “We’re still looking at extraordinarily high numbers. We have a long way to go. I think we’ll know that we’re getting there when we see trends that are pointing in sharply downward directions and are doing so in a sustained manner.”