OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital in Athens. Photo by Sarah Donaldson.

ATHENS — Ten members of the Ohio National Guard will be providing support for the staff at OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital starting next week. This round of support, the first to come to the county since Governor Mike DeWine announced the initial deployment of 1,050 guardsmen in mid-December, will last 90 days with a chance for a lengthened stay if necessary.

Following the first groups deployment on Dec. 17, another 1,250 National Guard members were deployed to help Ohio hospitals on Dec. 29. As COVID-19 numbers surge and patients — a majority of which are unvaccinated — fill up beds, hospitals across the state have expressed the need for assistance.

Initially, members of the guard were sent to areas of the state hardest hit by the most recent wave of infections, driving at hospitals in northern and central Ohio. Hospitals at that time had begun suspending elective surgeries in order to preserve much needed space for patients.

The National Guard members coming to O’Bleness will be providing non-medical assistance by serving as patient companions, helping patients with mobility limitations, stocking supplies and answering phones. This will help keep the medical staff able to focus on their clinical work.

The work they will be doing is supplemental, according to O’Bleness Hospital President LeAnn Helber who said that with her team being active for two years working through the pandemic, it has begun to wear on people.

“It seems like just as quickly as we discharge a patient, we have another one that needs our great, high-quality care,” said Helber.

While O’Bleness has remained above water throughout the most recent wave of infections, the strain is still being felt by the staff.

“We’re excited to welcome the National Guard next week,” said Helber. “They’re going to be extra hands and feet for us. It’ll allow our clinician to work at the top of their license.”

Beds in the ICU at O’Bleness are currently full of both covid and non-covid patients. This can change hour-by-hour as patients are admitted and others are discharged, according to Rhonda Dixon, O’Bleness’ chief nursing officer.

Looking forward, Helber is hopeful that numbers have plateaued and won’t reach the levels seen in other counties but “we’re all realistic and trying to do our best to manage.”

She’s not certain as to whether more National Guard members will be needed beyond the initial 90 day assignment but continued evaluation throughout their stay will help determine what will be needed here and across the state.

With students returning to campus next week, Ohio University has made various changes to their COVID-19 protocol in response to rising numbers.

During a COVID-19 conference call held on Wednesday, OU’s special assistant for public health operations Gillian Ice stated that she expects to see a surge in cases larger than the one seen last semester.

The university updated its preference for student masking, recommending heavier duty options such as KN95, N95, KF94 or three-ply surgical masks. They went a step further banning other previously acceptable masks including face shields and neck gators.

Earlier in the week, OU also changed their quarantine guidelines to reflect the Centers for Disease Control’s recommendations, which shortens the quarantine period from ten days to five.

Beyond local numbers, Ohio has been hit hard over the past week. A report by the Ohio Capital Journal shows that since the start of the year, the state placed second in the nation for per capita deaths due to the virus with only Wyoming reporting higher casualty rates.

The data does lag behind with reports coming in after deaths are investigated but current data does show that in the first week of December, about 86 Ohioans were dying each day.

In terms of hospitalizations per capita, Ohio ranks fourth behind Delaware, New Jersey and Washington D.C.

The state is also lagging behind in vaccination rates, sitting at about 60%, making Ohio the eighth least vaccinated state according to data from the New York Times.

“If I can say one thing to the community, please get your vaccine,” said Dixon.

“If you’re eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, please please get vaccinated,” said Helber. “If you’re vaccinated and you can get your booster, please get boosted. It really does help.”

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