OhioHealth O'Bleness Hospital
OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital [Courtesy OhioHealth]

How the COVID-19 Pandemic is Affecting Hospitals in Athens and Hocking Counties

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — The state of Ohio has asked all hospitals to cancel elective surgeries, which could put strain on rural hospitals’ finances.

The chief nursing officer at OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital said she feels confident in the hospital’s ability to serve the Athens community if there is a surge in COVID-19 cases.

Rhonda Dixon said because elective surgeries have been canceled, O’Bleness staff have been training in other areas to prepare for a possible influx of patients.

“We still have some surgeries, but not near like we did,” she said. “So, the people that were doing those jobs normally on a routine basis, what we’re doing is training them every day now. So if I’m a surgery nurse today, how can I work with a nurse in one of the inpatient units that can help if and when we get a surge of patients.”

Dixon added OhioHealth hospitals are working with medical centers outside the network as part of the Central Ohio Trauma System (COTS), which includes locations in southeast Ohio.

Stacey Gabriel, president and CEO of Hocking Valley Community Hospital, spoke with WOSU in Columbus about the challenges her hospital is facing.

Gabriel said the cancellation of elective surgeries has put a strain on the hospital’s already tight budget. She also said she is concerned that rural hospitals were not specifically part of the $100 billion designated for hospitals in the federal stimulus package.

“We didn’t have time to try and save, we have little ability to save for a rainy day anyway,” she said in an interview with WOSU’s Ann Fisher on Wednesday. “So, this has just created quite a financial stress and a financial burden. And I know we’re not the only hospital; this is a nationwide issue for all critical access hospitals or rural hospitals.”

Hocking Valley Community Hospital is not listed as a member of the Central Ohio Trauma System, but it is designated a critical access hospital by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. This is a designation given to some rural hospitals to help with federal funding. O’Bleness is a member of COTS, but is not designated a critical access hospital according to the Ohio Hospital Association.

Dixon said she has not been part of any conversations about revenue concerns.

“We’re in a very good place because of the strength of our system,” she told WOUB.

Dixon said medical care centers in the OhioHealth network have created a number of teams to make sure supply chains and staffing are adequate.

She also said she is encouraged by the Food and Drug Administration’s approval for Columbus-based Battelle Memorial Institute to sterilize tens of thousands of N-95 surgical masks per day.

“It’s a huge game-changer for us,” she said. “We have the same strain as everyone in the country as far as equipment and people.”

Both Dixon and Gabriel said their hospitals have surge plans in place if there is an influx of COVID-19 patients.

“We are training, we are planning…we are working through protocol,” Dixon said. “We want our community to know that we’re going to be there for them.”

Gabriel told WOSU the Hocking County community has been generous with their donations and prayers.

“We are truly blessed to have a community who is so tight-knit,” she said.