Having a career in public health means preparing for worst case scenarios. There’s plans outlined, drills and procedures practiced.
But for Health Commissioner Traci Kinsler and her employees at Marion Public Health, no one could have predicted how devastating and tumultuous the coronavirus pandemic would be.
On March 9, 2020, Gov. Mike DeWine announced the first three COVID cases in Ohio, declaring a state of emergency. A few days later, he ordered the closure of all K-12 schools for a then three-week extended spring break.
By March 20, Marion County saw its first confirmed case when a 66-year-old man tested positive for the virus. Cases quickly ballooned after that, as MPH dealt with outbreaks from the prisons and nursing homes.
“You would have those moments of disbelief and then they would wash over you and then you would calm down again and get back to work,” Kinsler said. “It was just a roller coaster of emotions.”
The pandemic also proved to be a roller coaster of events. Cases began to wane in the summer, but by November, the county was hit with another surge. Cases started going down again last month, but thousands of residents have already contracted the virus. As of Wednesday, there are 8,102 cumulative cases and 137 deaths, including those of inmates at county prisons.
Now one year into the pandemic, Marion Public Health, Marion General Hospital and Marion City Schools reflect on their experiences in a year that was far from normal.
Overworked and overwhelmed
Kinsler knew COVID-19 was going to be here for the long haul when the World Health Organization declared the virus a global pandemic in early March 2020.
But Kinsler and 10 other staff members working on the COVID front would soon find themselves overwhelmed when an outbreak erupted at the Marion Correctional Institution. By April, at least 80% of the prison was infected and four prisoners had died. The New York Times rated Marion Correctional Institution as the largest source of virus infections in the country, while Johns Hopkins University ranked Marion County as second in the nation for infections per 100,000 people.
Kinsler said at one point, MPH had more than 2,000 cases to enter into its system in the course of one weekend.
“It was certainly a surprise,” she said. “Nobody expected that basically everybody in the prison would test positive. And then it was a few weeks of working closely with the prison, providing whatever help we could and just…trying to get through it.”
The agency was also thrust into the national spotlight, with Kinsler providing interviews and statements for media outlets such as NPR, CNN and The Daily Beast.
“It was definitely a big moment for us,” she said. “An unfortunate one because of the circumstances. But yeah, we got a lot of press attention, a lot of worried and concerned family members of inmates in the prison. So, it was quite a busy time.”
By June, the outbreak at MCI began to slow down as the prison began testing inmates and staff on a regular basis while following COVID guidelines. However, MPH would have their hands full again when a third wave hit the county in after Halloween. By Nov. 27, Marion County had more than 1,000 active cases.
“We had been bracing ourselves for that big surge,” she said. “We knew that the winter months would be difficult and then the holidays. We went from doing 10, 20 cases a day to up to 70 or 80 cases a day.”
As cases began to decrease in January, MPH shifted its focus to the COVID vaccine. The agency is operating a clinic at a building owned by the Marion County Board of Developmental Disabilities. Turnout for the clinic has been enthusiastic. Currently, MPH has administered 5,840 doses.
“I hope that we can convince people to come and get vaccinated, to understand that it’s safe and it’s our way out of this pandemic,” she said. “And I’m hopeful by the summer we’ll have the majority of our population vaccinated and that will be the road to sort of getting back to normal and being able to move past the pandemic.”
A year’s worth of patients in four months
Nurses, doctors and other staff members at OhioHealth Marion General Hospital were also hit hard at the end of last year. Hospice and palliative care doctor Lena Gibson said between the months of October and January, her team was seeing about a year’s worth of patients.
“When you have a whole year’s worth of deaths condensed down into four months and families aren’t allowed to visit, that was just crazy,” she said.
Gibson said she didn’t have much time to process all that she was experiencing because she was dealing with so many patients. She even began coming into the hospital on the weekends because the Intensive Care Unit was so overwhelmed. Gibson said back in December that half of her patients survive the virus, while the other half eventually die.
“You didn’t have time to process it, you never had time to go, ‘Am I doing the work I love and does this gives me meaning and energy?’ You just had to come in the next day, come in the next day. And I used to be able to hold all my patients; their names, their family member’s names, in my heart.
Now I look back and a whole year’s worth of patients in four months, I can’t remember anybody, and its really distressing.”
However, Gibson was determined to make her patients’ experiences the best she could during what she calls, “an epidemic of loneliness.” During Christmastime, she put out a post on Facebook asking people if they wanted to send stuffed animals and blankets to patients. Within days, 400 toys and blankets were delivered to Gibson’s home.
“I was really surprised how much it helped us (doctors and nurses) heal,” she said about the project. “All of us started laughing again and being kind of silly. And patients’ faces just brightened. I thought if I take a bear to an adult man, he’s going to be so insulted. No, every one of them named them.
“It just became this tool for feeling connected again.”
Now that cases have started to decrease, the doctor is finally having a chance to process her pandemic experiences. She plans to use an upcoming family trip to do some reflection.
“I’m glad I lived through it,” Gibson said. “I’m glad I got to do what I did. Some of the patients and families have mailed us cards and I’ve taken them home and read them to my children.
“All how I described how stressful it is, the amount of meaning that has come out of it and the learning about your team, learning about your organization and learning about other physicians in the country who weren’t even there to help. That was really cool.”
Marion City Schools
Last week, Marion City Schools Superintendent Ron Iarussi and his administration reminisced about DeWine’s school shut down order, laughing about the videos they sent to families as they truly believed that COVID-19 would settle down after those three weeks.
“I remember us all sitting watching the governor because I called my entire administrative team together for the press conference,” he said. “It was really unclear at that point what even the governor was talking about because not everybody has a spring break. And so, we weren’t sure if he was talking about colleges because we knew that there was worries about kids on campuses and in dorm rooms. So, when he first announced it, we weren’t even sure if it pertained to K-12 institutions, we had to get clarification on that.”
Iarussi said the district’s priority at the moment was not academics, but making sure students had enough food to eat during the break. Staff members and bus drivers teamed up to deliver free breakfasts and lunches to thousands of students. The administration and teachers then met March 13 to come up with an online learning plan. Staff worked over the weekend to have the plan ready for that Monday, Iarussi said. They also spent time putting together work packets to deliver to students.
“We tried to make sure that we had everything that we needed to try to continue the educational process,” Iarussi said. “But we were seriously concerned about our kids’ well-being in relation to were they getting food, were they safe, were their parents able to take care of them.”
When it became clear that schools would remain closed for the rest of the year, MCS continued to make sure that all students had a Chromebook to work on as well as internet access.
In May when it was time to plan for the upcoming school year, Iarussi thought he would be able to bring back in-person learning. However, cases were increasing again throughout the summer.
“I remember it was July 19 because we had a board meeting that night,” Iarussi said. “Marion Public Health made a recommendation that we consider going fully remote or the hybrid model to be able to social distance. So, again, we were given a month to restructure all of our plans.”
The district went with the hybrid model. Iarussi pushed the first day of school back two weeks to give teachers and staff members more time to prepare lessons and their classrooms in accordance to COVID protocols.
Within a month of school starting, MCS reported its first student case. Then later in October, Hayes Elementary School closed for two weeks due to a staff member testing positive for COVID-19.
“We were obviously very concerned about any outbreaks because we were told if two or three kids in the same classroom or building were diagnosed with COVID, that would be considered an outbreak and we would have to shut down the entire building for two weeks,” Iarussi said.
“Thankfully, we have not throughout this year, had one case of anything that suggests that there was internal spread in the school environment.”
As of March 14, there have been 127 total cases throughout the district, with 59 student cases and 68 staff cases. Currently, there is only one COVID case.
After briefly going remote during the holidays and then returning to a hybrid model, MCS students and staff will be back in school full-time March 29.
“I’ve been out into the buildings recently and our teachers are just really excited,” Iarussi said. “I think they feel a lot more comfortable because of the vaccine.
“When we come back that week of the 29th, we are going to make sure that we spend a lot of time with our kids about making sure that they’re ready for this, making sure that they feel comfortable, that they’re in a safe place.”
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