Forging ahead: The future with COVID-19 in the Southern Tier

Published: May. 26, 2022 at 12:44 PM EDT
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(WBNG) -- The coronavirus has been a part of our lives in the United States since Jan. 20, 2020.

Since then, we have seen mass testing efforts with isolation orders, large-scale vaccine clinics, mask mandates, and much more. Local experts say while much has changed, the virus remains in our communities.

“We, as most of the United States and the nation and the world did not really know what we were up against,” said Broome Co. Public Health Director Mary McFadden.

“Back in 2020 when it was a completely unknown virus there was a lot of fear and trepidation I would say in what we were taking care of,” said the Director of the Hospitalist Program at UHS, Dr. Jeffrey Gray.

“Pretty quickly we realized it was a matter of time. It wasn’t if but when we would see our first case,” said Isaiah Sutton, Public Health Director for Chenango Co., “So from that first day, we started gearing up to enact our plans. If you had told me two years later we would still be executing that process I would have been quite surprised.”

The Southern Tier saw its first confirmed coronavirus case on March 14, 2020, in Tioga County.

“Those early days before we had a vaccine available, that definitely was one of the toughest times for our community,” said Senior Public Educator for Tioga County Kylie Holochak.

Nearly overnight, local health departments and hospitals became the epicenter of information and treatment for the novel virus.

“One of our greatest challenges was trying to be the resource for answers when answers were very few and far between,” said Sutton, “The science was very rapidly changing what we knew about the virus changed sometimes hourly, state guidelines changed, they were different in the morning than they were in the afternoon.”

“Essentially back in 2020, the hospital had to remodel itself on the fly,” said Dr. Gray, “As this is an airborne virus we did not have the infrastructure to make sure we had the capability of turning almost everyone’s room into reverse isolation which means we can keep the virus from spreading to other rooms in the hospital.”

“There were times when we weren’t doing elective procedures and that allowed us to take some of that clinical staff to do other work,” said Chief Medical Officer of the Guthrie Clinic Dr. Michael Scalzone, “There were times when there was so much necessary non-COVID care that we had to bring people in from other sites and bring them to do the clinical care.”

Local Health Departments became responsible for enforcing state guidelines including isolation orders, mask mandates and contact tracing while also maintaining their other duties.

“I think that a lot of people forget that health departments do more than just communicable disease,” said Holochak, “We monitor all of our restaurants that are open, we help our children that are getting early intervention services, if we have rabies investigations we are doing that, we’re really doing it all and this was the same staff that was doing those types of duties that were also doing COVID-19.”

When the vaccine became available to the majority of the population by 2021, those same health departments had a new task.

“Public health drills constantly for these public health emergencies and getting shots in arms was our objective when it became available to anyone who was eligible,” said McFadden, “So setting up the SUNY Broome Ice Arena was something that we had drilled for in the past.”

Meanwhile, Hospitals built new tools to care for patients and strengthened their relationships with local health departments and each other.

“We had to almost turn on a dime and start to use telemedicine as almost an exclusive means of taking care of people on the outside as doctors weren’t allowed to go to their houses and the public was definitely fearful of going into any doctor’s offices so we were able to aggressively pursue that option,” said Gray, “We were able to get nationally recognized and certified as a telemedicine provider, one of the first ones in the country to get that recognition.”

“We have something called hospital care at home which is a way we try to transition your care out of the hospital as fast as possible and/or keep you from having to come into the hospital at all,” said Gray. “Through the telemedicine portal, physicians and nurses check in on you with remote access and then have visits periodically with a home health nurse just to make sure you’re improving effectively in your own home.”

“There’s a wonderful interconnection with public health that just didn’t exist this robustly three years ago,” said Scalzone. “We learned from them, they learned from us, and we work together much better. And then with the actual facilities, those you could call our competitors, there has been so much collaboration and so much discussion about what are you facing, what are we facing, let’s make sure we look at that together.”

Now into its third year, the COVID-19 pandemic continues.

“We are definitely seeing the Omicron surge and it’s picking up steam everywhere,” said McFadden, “So to say that we are in the endemic phase, I wouldn’t put us there yet. Because it’s so unknown, this virus is able to mutate very quickly and keeps us on our toes. COVID is not behind us and we need to learn to live with it.”

While most testing is now being done at home, agencies are finding new ways to track COVID-19 infection.

“Some of the wastewater treatment plants are testing for COVID in the wastewater which is a very novel surveillance method that we hope to be able to expand on locally,” said Sutton, “I see it as a really great way to keep your finger on the pulse of activity in the community.”

“If we are seeing a large number of cases, but the majority of them are very mild cases and we are not really seeing the hospitalizations and deaths, from the health department’s standpoint we aren’t going to be as quick to react to that,” said Holochak, “If we do see people becoming severely sick, we do see those hospitalizations, we see those deaths, that’s the point we need to step back and take that action.”

Health departments say they are continuing to prepare for the next steps.

“I fully expect we’ll have regular vaccine boosters, whether that be yearly or bi-yearly similar to a flu shot, time will tell, science is still working on that,” said Sutton, “But I see us having a role in education, prevention, and response going forward, but not the heavy-handed regulated approach we took initially.”

“Really our eyes are on hospitalizations,” said McFadden, “To make sure that we are not overwhelming our hospitals and to send out messages when we see that there might be an uptick and be able to help hospitals maintain their staffing and to maintain their operations.”

Hospitals say they continue to garner new tools for treating virus infection.

“There was a time when what are called monoclonal antibodies was the most effective and most available treatment, but as the variants changed those became ineffective,” said Scalzone, “So we are now in this phase where we have several oral medications, antivirals that are available through a prescription by your physician that you pick up at the pharmacy.”

They also attribute changes in COVID hospitalization trends to the vaccine.

“We have very many fewer patients on ventilators or needing a significant amount of oxygen,” said Scalzone, “We have people in the hospital, but they’re not as seriously ill as they were before.”

“If you were to come into the hospital and take a sampling of who is actually in the hospital with actual COVID still in this day in age it, would be those who are unvaccinated, unboosted, and if you’re unvaccinated there is a high chance you are in the ICU which is obviously not where we want you to be,” said Gray. “So, if I could make one plea to the community, it would be to please get vaccinated.”

“Healthcare systems are much better prepared to take care of this now,” said Scalzone, “Over time we are going to learn more about this virus and we’re going to learn more about how to treat it and treat the consequences of it, but it’s going to be a while.”

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