Having Backups Ready to Step In

A few days ago, we reported COVID-19 is wearing out some of the public health professionals serving West Virginia. That problem will only grow worse, perhaps with little warning.

We focused on the Marshall County Health Department, where Threat Director Mark Ackermann told us the staff frequently works 12-hour days, for days on end. Health department employees are overwhelmed, he added.

Health Department Administrator Tom Cook said the concern about people is a wider one. COVID-19 is taxing hospitals, too, he explained.

Sure enough, within days Wheeling Hospital and Reynolds Memorial Hospital expressed concern about staffing. “Many employees are either out with COVID or are quarantined due to potential exposure,” Wheeling Hospital Executive Officer Douglass Harrison said. “At this point, it’s a shift-by-shift assessment on staffing,” added Reynolds infection control coordinator Pattie Kemple.

Both health care and public health professionals have been working hard for months to keep up with the epidemic — and it is growing worse.

Throughout West Virginia, roughly one-third of the total number of people who have come down with COVID-19 during the epidemic’s eight months are sick right now. At week’s end, outbreaks of the disease were reported at 65 nursing homes — well over half the number in the state. Most of them were coping with staff shortages because of exposure to the virus.

Fatigue already has become a factor among health professionals, in part because, as the two local hospitals noted, many of their staffs have either had COVID-19 or been quarantined because of exposure to others with it.

At some point, a cascading effect could occur, taking out of action large numbers of the people we need to keep us healthy and make us well if we get sick.

Given the gratifying efficiency with which Gov. Jim Justice and his staff have handled the epidemic, it would not be surprising if the state already has a backup plan in effect. The West Virginia National Guard is an excellent resource for such personnel.

If such a plan is not in place, one needs to be developed immediately. Time may be growing short to ensure backup people are in place to step into roles now being played by overwhelmed staffs at health departments, hospitals and nursing homes.


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