As the latest wave of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage Northeast Ohio, is it safe to gather for the holidays?
Unless you’re vaccinated, boosted and following COVID-19 precautions, it's probably not a good idea, according to the Summit County Public Health commissioner.
“Please be careful. If you’re going to do it, you have to … [do it] with precautions,” said Summit County Public Health Commissioner Donna Skoda. “If you’re unvaccinated, you should just stay home. I mean, it's very dangerous to be out.”
Skoda said those precautions that should be done at holiday gatherings include wearing masks except for when actively eating, maintaining physical distance and opening windows to allow for ventilation.
“I know you feel comfortable around your family. You take off your masks, and you kind of let your guard down,” Skoda said. “This isn't the time to let your guard down. We all must be vigilant and try to make those gatherings small. And I know we're really tired of this, two years …. We just need to do it a little longer and kind of get COVID in the rearview mirror. But we know that vaccination and masking are the two best strategies.”
The current wave, driven by concurrent surges of the delta and omicron variants, is leaving hospitals overcrowded and overwhelmed and health care workers exhausted.
Skoda recommended that anyone who has had recent contact with a positive case should cancel any holiday gatherings or not attend them, regardless of vaccination status, she said.
The vaccines don’t guarantee that you won’t get sick, but they are extremely effective at preventing severe illness, hospitalization or death, doctors say.
“It is not worth the risk. We have seen folks who have been exposed fully vaccinated who didn't really have much symptoms go on to test positive, and before you know it, the entire family is ill,” she said. “It is an airborne respiratory virus that is just not worth the risk currently.”
Skoda also recommended people attend holiday church services virtually this year. She said the idea of singing, unmasked choirs makes her “very nervous.”
“Attending a church is very spiritual, and I know it's very helpful for many, many of us,” she said. “But I do believe that safety is first, and you need to do it from the comfort of your home.”
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Skoda was one of several speakers during a Facebook live session Wednesday afternoon that discussed the COVID-19 situation in Summit County.
Cleveland Clinic Akron General President Dr. Brian Harte said that for the past several weeks, the hospital has had between 120 and 140 COVID-19-positive patients, which is a quarter to a third of all the beds in the hospital.
About two-thirds of the hospital’s entire intensive care unit capacity is currently taken up by COVID-positive patients. Normally, the hospital has ICUs dedicated to different patients, including cardiac, neurological and trauma patients. But Harte said that “all of those distinctions are irrelevant now because our ICUs are so full of COVID-19 patients.”
Harte said that 89% of COVID-positive patients in ICUs are unvaccinated. Between one and five COVID-positive patients are dying at Akron General every day, he said.
Nearly 50% of the tests being done at the Cleveland Clinic for people “getting tested with some level of respiratory symptoms” are positive, Harte said.
“Our caregivers are committed. They're working their hearts out. But it is exhausting,” he said. “The burden on the health care system has never been so extreme and certainly not so extreme for so long as what we're seeing now.”
Summa Health CEO Dr. Cliff Deveny said that 91% of Summa’s COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated. Summa has treated more than 10,500 people in its hospitals for COVID and has had more than 500 people die in its facilities from COVID, Deveny said.
“This is 100% preventable deaths,” he said. “And what I think is the hardest thing is to watch our caregivers. They're giving their all every day.”
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Harte and Deveny urged people to call 911 for a true emergency, but if it’s not life-threatening, explore other options, like telehealth, urgent care or primary care.
“We're going to be open and make sure that we meet the needs of the community but we need your help,” Deveny said. “This is worse than it was a year ago because we have less people available in our community that are willing to work in the health care system.”
Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan said that in the last six months, wait times at local hospitals have increased almost 30% because of the number of people coming for emergency care. That also affects EMS crews who have to wait.
“The bottom line is nobody wants to get COVID for Christmas. Please choose a safe and healthy happy holiday season. If you aren't feeling well, please, it's best to stay home, whether you've been vaccinated or not. You may want to rethink a little bit on the large family gatherings and go for a smaller get together instead,” he said. “I know we're all tired of the precautions we've been preaching, the same message for almost two years, but with cases spiking as heavily as they are, it's imperative that we each take our own responsibility, and I'll highlight that word, the responsibility for our own health and for the health of others around us.”
Skoda acknowledged that some of the messaging about vaccines in the beginning was “probably really wrong.”
“We were so excited about a vaccine that was really effective,” she said. “That translated to a lot of people that [thought] you're free, go out, run around and do what you want to do.”
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Deveny said people are likely frustrated that the messaging keeps changing, but that’s the nature of science.
“We are learning on a daily basis more about the virus, and the scientists and the studies are ongoing,” he said. “And so as those studies come out, and as we have information, we then apply that, and some people may be frustrated that it appears we're changing our minds at times.”
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Skoda said Summit County Public Health doesn’t expect to get any more test kits until Monday or Tuesday. The health department has given out about 45,000 total test kits.
Starting in January, the health department will also have daily COVID-19 vaccine appointments, with all three vaccines (Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson) available. They’ll be indoors, but the health department will evaluate the demand and may move to large-scale drive-thru testing. Schedule at gettheshot.coronavirus.ohio.gov.
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Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro encouraged business owners to implement COVID-19 protocols to help slow the spread in the county, both to keep their staff and customers safe and to allow their businesses to remain open.
“We do not want to return to the dark days of 2020,” she said. “But unfortunately, we are already seeing COVID raising its nasty little head again and infecting spending habits, staffing and even forcing major events to be canceled.”
Shapiro said business owners “can set an example for the rest of the community” with having mask mandates for customers and staff, having incentives for staff getting vaccines and boosters, maintaining physical distance with dividers and shields, making it easy for staff to take off work for appointments or testing, encouraging staff to stay home when they’re sick and exploring hybrid staffing models, like staggering shifts.
“We know some of these actions are inconvenient, but at the end of the day, they will likely affect your bottom line,” she said.
Akron City Council President Margo Sommerville, who is also vice president and funeral director of Sommerville Funeral Services, asked all business owners to mandate masks.
“Mask mandates keep our employees safe. It makes our customers feel comfortable. But it also lets our community know that we are taking the COVID pandemic seriously. When everyone acts like a carrier and wears a mask, we can prevent the spread from one person to another,” she said. “As a funeral director, I see firsthand the high numbers of preventable deaths and the burdens and long-lasting effects that are placed on families.”
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: COVID-19 in Northeast Ohio: Is it safe to gather for the holidays?