Wednesday, April 8th, 2020

Officials plan for peak in cases

By Leslie Gartrell
CELINA - The Mercer County Health District is coordinating planning and communication among local and regional partners to prepare for a potential peak in coronavirus cases.
Plans are in place to keep Mercer County residents safe and prepared during the pandemic, said Deb Scheer, district epidemiologist and director of emergency preparedness.
Officials anticipate the number of COVID-19 cases could peak in Mercer County and the state this week or next. She wasn't sure what the peak number would be. However, officials learned on Saturday that Mercer County has been below the curve, meaning county residents have been taking the correct steps to stem the spread of the virus. The number of confirmed cases in Mercer County remained at eight on Tuesday night.
Health district officials on March 16 fully activated their incident command system structure and opened their Department Operations Center. Scheer said the ICS helps the district's partners coordinate a response.
The district also offers a COVID-19 call center, which operates from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday-Friday. Emergency response coordinator and public information officer Kristy Fryman said Medical Reserve Corps volunteers have been averaging about 10 calls per day.
The district is part of the Mercer County Healthcare Disaster Preparedness Coalition, a system of groups including Mercer Health and the Mercer County Emergency Management Agency.
According to Mercer Health's website, the coalition's goals are to maximize health care response capabilities and minimize health care system interruptions during emergencies by planning together to identify and fill gaps. Scheer said the group meets quarterly to plan and practice preparedness responses.
The district has received an Ohio Department of Health emergency health care preparedness grant, Scheer said. The grant program encourages partnerships with other regions. As part of the Northwest region, the health district is partnered with health departments in counties including Auglaize and Allen.
Scheer said the health district has memorandums of understanding with other departments to share resources and aid in a crisis. However, a pandemic limits the ability to share resources.
The district also partners with long-term health care facilities; nursing homes; schools; law enforcement; mental health care providers, such as Foundations; and city, village and township officials.
Scheer and Fryman said officials have several plans should a serious situation arise. The district has an emergency response plan, an epidemiology response plan, a contingency plan if district staff become sick, a mass vaccination plan and a mass fatality plan.
"We have these plans in place so if something happens, we're prepared," Scheer said.
With these plans comes plenty of practice. The health district does a yearly drive-thru flu clinic that vaccinates roughly 600 people. The clinic also serves as practice if the district should ever need to mass vaccinate.
As part of their mass vaccination plan, the district would need to vaccinate the entire population of Mercer County, or roughly 40,000 people, within 48 hours, Scheer said. She said this isn't a feat the health district would be able to do solo, which is where partnerships with other counties apply.
The district has daily situation reports and weekly conference calls with partners, Fryman said. Officials have implemented an infinite action plan, which prioritizes issues every 48 hours.
Fryman said the department's largest priority is communicating and providing information, especially with nursing homes, long-term care facilities, group homes and the jail.
Mercer County Commissioner Greg Homan said the health district has taken an active, pivotal role in preparing for a potential surge of infections and noted officials are working in tandem with Emergency Management Agency Director Mike Robbins.
"Robbins is pulling together the conference calls, meeting with all of the local jurisdictions," Homan said. "The health department and Mercer Health are involved in those regular conference calls."
Robbins said EMA's role in preparing for a potential uptick in cases is largely centered on securing what limited resources might be available, disseminating information and tracking related expenses.
Robbins said he was able to secure generators and cots for patient overflow tents that have been installed outside the emergency room of Mercer County Community Hospital in Coldwater. But he's not better positioned than other agencies in trying to obtain additional personal protective equipment.
PPE from the national stockpile, though, is filtering to rural communities, as three such deliveries have arrived locally. The health district prioritizes distribution, he said.
The EMA, along with other local agencies, has long carried out tabletop exercises in which officials respond to a staged emergency scenario, such as a pandemic or chemical spill.
"We're pretty confident that they've gone through situations and they've role played it and really planned this all out," Homan said. "The plans have been evaluated over a number of years."
Scheer believes the health district is ready for whatever comes its way.
"We're always preparing for what's to come," Scheer said. "We've exercised this frequently. I do feel we're very prepared."
- Reporter William Kincaid contributed to this article.
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