Holzer And O’Bleness Respond To Understaffing And High COVID Numbers With Familiar Pandemic Protocols 

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — COVID-19 numbers continue to rise in Southeast Ohio, causing local health care systems to be stretched thin and re-institute early 2020 pandemic protocols.

Holzer Health Systems

The number of COVID-19 patients is nearing the highest level from 2020, according to Dr. Mike Canady, the CEO at Holzer Health System. On Monday, the Holzer hospital in Jackson had 34 patients with COVID, at the peak last year it saw 43 COVID patients. 

“We’re at about 75 percent of what we saw then, and our capacity is much less than what it was,” Canady said. “We have less staff, stressed staff, burned-out staff. We have managers and directors who usually don’t do front-line patient care doing front-line patient care right now. We didn’t even have to resort to that back during the surge in the winter.”

The Athens location of Holzer consists of physicians’ offices and two urgent care clinics. According to Canady, the effects of the recent increase of COVID cases are mainly being felt at Holzer’s Gallipolis and Jackson locations. 

Burnout among the nursing staff is chief among his concerns, as Holzer has consistently had around 25 nurses out on quarantine with COVID or due to exposure throughout the pandemic. 

“Our staffing ratios have gotten very, very, stretched. We can only ask nurses to take care of so many patients at a time. We’re stretched about as thin as we have ever been right now,” Canady said.

Understaffing is a frequent cause of the often discussed “lack of beds” in hospitals. Canady said that even if a hospital has physical beds available patients can’t be placed if the staff is over-extended, as it creates a possibility for unsafe care.

Hospitals that don’t have the resources to safely admit patients often try to utilize lateral transfers between hospitals. Holzer is part of a regular multi-hospital conference call that discusses each facility’s capacity and supply numbers. This allows different health systems to know where patients may be sent. 

Unfortunately, lateral transfers are not always guaranteed, as the increased number of COVID-related ER visits has left health systems overrun. If a health system finds a bed for a patient, it then runs into a logistical problem, as ambulance companies are also currently understaffed.

“We literally have people stacking up in our ERs unable to get places,” Canady said.

 Holzer and other health care systems have had to get creative with how they handle the increasing number of patients. According to Canady, Holzer has repurposed a waiting room adjacent to the ER into a patient care area. It has also placed a blow-up tent outside of the ER parking lot to serve as a waiting room.

The tent is similar to early pandemic protocols when hospitals were worried about a lack of supplies, space, and conservation of resources within operating rooms. Canady doesn’t foresee a need to return to all of the protocols, and believes there is no need to stop elective surgery at this time. 

O’Bleness OhioHealth

The main health care system in Athens is taking a different approach. OhioHealth O’Bleness Hospital will be pausing elective surgeries that require an overnight stay at the hospital to free up staff and the hospital’s capacity, a statement from OhioHealth stated. 

A sign in front of O'Bleness Hospital in Athens, Ohio
Emergency rooms throughout Southeast Ohio have been increasingly busy with the latest surge of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pictured is the emergency room sign at OhioHealth O’Bleness in Athens, Ohio. [Joseph Scheller | WOUB]
O’Bleness also updated its visitor policy on Aug. 31 to limit a single designated visitor per patient for the duration of their stay. The change is a return to the visitor limitation that O’Bleness has implemented and repealed throughout the pandemic.

According to the announcement, visitors must be asymptomatic and wear a mask, additionally, all visitors must be 18 years and older unless they are the parent of a patient. 

Exceptions to this rule include minors, patients receiving end-of-life care, maternity patients and special circumstances as determined by the clinical team. 

O’Bleness also temporarily erected a tent outside of its ER to use as a registration area. After registering, patients were asked to remain in their vehicles until they could be seen. According to a O’Bleness representative, the tent is no longer being used. 

Much like Holzer, O’Bleness is seeing an increase in COVID patients. LeeAnn Helber, president of O’Bleness, said that the hospital can do lateral transfers to other branches of OhioHealth if needed. 

“While we always strive to provide care close to home, in times like these, we have the ability to lean on all of our system’s hospitals to ensure patients get the care they need when they need it if we should reach capacity,” Helber said.

O’Bleness declined to comment on what that capacity is, or if it has neared it in the past, citing the constantly changing number of patients the hospital treats.

“Things are fluid, and it’s something that we monitor every day, it changes every day. It’s something that we stay close to every day so that we can make sure that we can provide the care that our patients need,” Helber said. 

Staff vaccination requirements

Both of the local health systems are now requiring staff members to get the COVID vaccine. 

Holzer’s vaccination rate is around 55% according to Canady who says that all but two of their physicians have been vaccinated. Those who object to the vaccine for medical, moral or religious reasons have to sign the proper paperwork and get an antibodies test or wear an N-95 mask with a face shield. 

“We are charged with protecting our staff. One way we know staff can be protected is with vaccines, it clearly works. It’s very safe and effective,” Canady said. 

Both O’Bleness and Holzer are encouraging not only their staff but also the community to get vaccinated if they haven’t yet. 

“Almost every patient that gets admitted to our hospital because of COVID is unvaccinated. This is a disease of unvaccinated people,” Canady said. “Please get the vaccine, talk to your provider.”

To schedule a vaccination appointment or for questions about the vaccine visit

Editor’s note: The article has been updated to reflect that the tent outside of the ER at O’Bleness was a temporary measure and is no longer in use.