Ohio prisons preparing for possible coronavirus outbreak

Officials OK'd the use of hand sanitizer, which has been prohibited as contraband because of its alcohol content

By Kaitlin Schroeder
Springfield News-Sun

COLUMBUS, Ohio — The coronavirus outbreak has continued to spread around the globe as health officials work to understand the disease, make testing more available and help people stay prepared but not panicked.

Gov. Mike DeWine held a Saturday afternoon press conference with Ohio Department of Health director, Dr. Amy Acton to announce the state’s protocol for maximizing coronavirus testing resources now that in-state testing is available.

DeWine confirmed the department is awaiting the results of five people who were tested for the virus, however there were still no confirmed cases in Ohio. Results are expected within 24 hours.

“As the COVID-19 situation evolves, the Ohio Department of Health, working in conjunction with hospitals, primary care providers, and other health care experts, has a plan to maximize our testing resources,” DeWine said. “We are prioritizing the patients who are the most vulnerable to be tested in the Department of Health’s State Laboratory, while ensuring those that need COVID-19 testing will be able to be tested.”

The department will start releasing data every day, Acton said. All test results will be reported to the department.

DeWine said last week in front of a packed Columbus auditorium of public health officials, including from Clark County, and other leaders that people should be cautious but not panic and continue to live their lives.

“This is going to be with us for a long time. This threat is not going to go away overnight.” DeWine said.

As the respiratory virus has spread, so has fear and misinformation, and Acton said a crucial tool in public health will be the need for good communication.

“In a time of an info-demic and when people are afraid, they will reach for information and it’s crucial that they have the best information to make decisions in what is an evolving situation,” Acton said.

Clark County Combined Health District Commissioner Charles Patterson attended Thursday’s presentation. “We’re seeing that community spread in Washington state and I think maybe for a few moments, we’re a little safer being in the Midwest, but with airline travel and with the way people travel nowadays, those are going to be moments, not weeks even.”

Prepared but not panicked

One part of that communication plan is that Ohio Department of Health opened a call center Friday to answer questions regarding coronavirus. The call center staff will include licensed nurses and infectious disease experts. They will be available to answer questions and provide accurate information about the coronavirus, the risk to the public, and the state’s response.

Ohio Department of Health received coronavirus testing supplies on Thursday, which will allow the state to get results on coronavirus tests within a day or two, while now it can take five days as samples are sent to the CDC. Wright-Patterson Air Force Base also received a kit that will allow test Department of Defense beneficiaries’ cases.

The general public in Ohio should not go out and buy a mask. When healthy people purchase a mask, it can leave less supplies for sick people and health professionals.

In addition, if healthy people are not used to wearing a mask, they might touch their face even more when they are readjusting the mask and that can make it even more likely that they will catch a virus.

“We have a lot of folks in Clark County who have respiratory issues. That doesn’t bode well for putting on an N95 mask because it could cause additional problems with their breathing, their asthma, or with getting enough oxygen with their heart,” Patterson said.

Vulnerable populations

Ohio nursing homes operators have been struggling to get enough personal protective equipment, said Pete Van Runkle, executive director of the Ohio Health Care Association, which is a nursing home trade group.

“All the major suppliers are basically rationing it or they don’t have any at all. That stems from that most of these items, basically masks, gowns and gloves, are manufactured in China and a lot of the factories are closed down because of their issues with coronavirus,” Van Runkle said.

Van Runkle said these are the same supplies that nursing home operators use for dealing with the flu, which is spreading right now and can lead to serious complications for older adults.

There are approximately 2.8 million Ohioans over age 60, and from what experts can tell so far, that’s an age group that appears to be particularly vulnerable to serious complications from coronavirus.

A letter sent this week to long-term care facility administrators urged them to remain prepared and take steps to stop the spread of germs.

State prison officials are preparing for a possible coronavirus spread, including authorizing the use of hand sanitizer which has long been prohibited as contraband because of its alcohol content.

Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction has 12,200 employees overseeing 48,700 inmates in 27 prisons and processing thousands of visitors each day. Additionally, thousands of volunteers and vendors regularly visit the prisons.

Keeping hands clean – a primary means of prevention – can be difficult behind bars. Former and current inmates report that alcohol-based hand sanitizer has long been prohibited inside prisons and soap and paper towels are often hard to come by. Indigent inmates are issued two bars of soap a month while other prisoners can purchase soap from the commissary.

Chris Mabe, president of the Ohio Civil Service Employees Union, which represents prison workers, said there is no shortage of soap and paper towels inside the prisons.

Ohio DRC Director Annette Chambers Smith on Thursday authorized making hand sanitizer available inside prisons but not allowing inmates to keep containers of it with them.

Most inmates have cellmates or live in open dormitory housing where dozens of prisoners sleep in the same large rooms. Large swaths of the prison population suffer from chronic health conditions, which could put them at higher risk in the event of an outbreak.

Mabe said the employee union is asking DRC to begin health screening visitors, vendors and volunteers before allowing them inside the prisons.

“We need to make sure we aren’t exposing residents to a virus. We need to keep our staff safe too,” Mabe said. “Once (coronavirus) gets inside, it’s there….The first line of defense is not letting it in.”

Madison Correctional Institution inmate John Peters said Friday that prisoners seem unconcerned about the coronavirus outbreak for the time being. “They laugh and joke about it. It’s not a real serious matter – until it happens.”

Disease detectives

Nine Ohioans have been tested for COVID-19 and had their tests come back negative as of Saturday.

When someone is under investigation for whether or not they have the virus, disease detectives get to work looking at where they’ve been and who they have had contact with.

“I’ve said this several times, your doctors is not taking history like these folks take history. If they did, we’d all be in better health,” Acton said.

These public health workers, or “disease detectives” as Acton referred to them, work to trace everyone a person has come in contact with so they can tell who might have been exposed. They want to know every work trip, every movie theater and every doctor visit you’ve made, because the story of how a disease spreads lies in the contact a person makes in these every day interactions.

“And that’s when we would share you know, at the showing of x movie in this theater at this time, you might want to watch for the symptoms and go see your doctor,” Acton said.

That’s how public health workers help people who could have been exposed be aware — and how people who weren’t exposed can get peace of mind if they weren’t contacted — while also protecting the person’s privacy.

Flu season

This is the time of year when public health officials are annually focused on influenza, which in recent seasons has sent anywhere from 3,600 to upwards of 17,000 Ohioans to a hospital stay, and that doesn’t even include doctor’s offices and ER trips where the patient wasn’t admitted.

As of March 1, 8,545 Ohioans have been hospitalized this flu season and two Ohio children have died. Adult deaths are not tracked at the county or state level but the CDC estimates there have been about 20,000 to 52,000 flu-related deaths in the U.S. this season and 34 million to 49 million have fallen ill.

Public health officials say the best ways to stop coronavirus from spreading are simple measures that also could help Ohioans ward off the flu.

“The actions that we’re asking the American public and the public throughout the Miami Valley to do right now, they’re not very sexy,” Patterson said. “We’re asking them to wash their hands and cover their coughs. To stay home when they’re sick and sneeze into their arm and clean surfaces.”

He said its good to see schools upping their cleaning schedules.

“We’re excited about that. Because not only can it help us with the spread of coronavirus, but also the spread we’re really seeing right now, which is influenza,” Patterson said.


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