Staying Safe According to the Experts

Ella Spooner

As I pulled into the driveway, I pushed the button on my garage door opener, fastened onto my car visor. As the garage door lifted, I saw my mother’s Ford Explorer sitting in the garage per usual, but her car’s tail lights were still on. The red lights reflected off of my car as I pulled into the garage next to her. She usually arrives home by 4:30 p.m., but it was almost 6 p.m. I looked to my right, and I could tell she was on the phone. I went inside, and it wasn’t until another hour later that she finally came inside.

   My mother’s late arrival home and taking consistent phone calls from the hospital has become the new ‘normal.’ Unfortunately, working extra hours and being extremely stressed is becoming the new ‘normal’ for many healthcare professionals. 

   Healthcare workers are growing tired from the pandemic and are more now than ever urging people to work hard to keep themselves and others safe. 

   Recently, the COVID-19 numbers in Michigan have exponentially increased. On November 12, Governor Gretchen Whitmer held a press conference to address the recent surge. “Sadly, COVID-19 is not done with us yet. It doesn’t care if we are tired of it or are angry or weary. This enemy is relentless and now the second wave of COVID-19 is hitting us and it’s hitting us hard,” Whitmer said. 

   In Ottawa County particularly, there has been a significant rise in coronavirus cases. During the beginning of the pandemic and throughout the summer, positivity rates in Ottawa County hovered around 3%. Now positivity rates have sky-rocketed to 15% or more. The recent surge is keeping healthcare workers busier than ever. 

   Melissa Spooner, the Director of Emergency Services at a local hospital, holds the everyday responsibilities of overseeing department operations for the emergency department. She also manages a staff of approximately 120, including management staff, nurses, patient care assistants, etc. 

   Ever since the pandemic hit, Spooner’s role at the hospital has changed significantly. Spooner now works on the surge planning for the emergency department and other patient care units. This differs greatly from her past role of directing quality improvement projects and relations with other parts of the hospital. This means her focus now has been on making sure that the emergency department has adequate staffing to meet the increase in patient volumes and providing coverage for employees who have contacted the virus. She and others are working hard to make sure that hospital staff have enough supplies and proper training to handle the surge. 

   According to Spooner, most of the student exposures seem to come from activities “outside of the classroom.” 

   “I actually believe that kids are safer in school than they are in other social settings. I feel that the schools have done a great job of putting together plans to keep kids safe while they are in the classroom. Many of the exposures to COVID-19 are happening in sports activities where kids are having closer contact without always wearing masks. We also are seeing most kids getting exposed outside of school when they hang out together after school and on the weekends,” Spooner said.

   The increase in cases is also coming from people becoming less concerned about the virus. 

   Spooner explains that “since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we haven’t seen high numbers of patients getting sick in our area and especially not students. Throughout the summer and early fall, our cases were very low. I think people became less concerned since COVID-19 wasn’t affecting Ottawa County to the same extent as it was in other areas of our state; ultimately, leading to people gathering in groups, going out to restaurants, being more social, etc. Along with not being directly affected, and the fact that the coronavirus and the pandemic have gone on for so long now, I think people have dropped their guard a little bit in the recent months,” Spooner said.  

   Since Ottawa County specifically had not seen a surge, many seem to be relaxing rules and becoming more comfortable in their environments again. It’s important that students continue to follow safety guidelines even though the pandemic has continued on for so long, and they may be feeling comfortable gathering again.  

   Frank Garcia, the Ottawa County Commissioner for District 1, along with other commissioners, similarly believe that people are starting to relax the rules and become ‘fatigued’ of the virus. “We understand that many folks are experiencing COVID fatigue and crave to socialize with their friends,” Garcia said. 

   With the increase in COVID-19 numbers in Ottawa County, hospitals have all had to make changes. In the beginning, hospitals focused on keeping healthcare workers safe by preventing patients who need to be tested from coming into the hospital and exposing more people. Spooner explains, “initially, when the pandemic started, we were concerned that we would see a large number of patients coming into the hospital for testing. Therefore, in the beginning, the surge plan committee worked very hard to set up an off-site testing clinic. This plan was developed to help prevent the hospital from getting overwhelmed with patients who did not require hospitalization, while still providing testing to the community. By setting up this off-site testing clinic, they helped to prevent further spread of the COVID virus and to identify and isolate patients with the virus.”

   Currently, the local hospitals are focusing now on how to handle the dramatic surge in patient numbers. “Now the surge planning looks much different. The biggest change is that the hospital is seeing more patients than they ever saw at the beginning of the pandemic, both more patients with COVID-19 and more patients seeking care for other emergencies. In the beginning of the pandemic, emergency departments across the nation saw a decrease in their normal volumes. Many people avoided coming into hospitals for a period of time” Spooner said. Now emergency departments are seeing their normal volumes of patients again, while also seeing an increase in patients with COVID-19.  This means that “the surge planning in the emergency department has been more focused on how to handle an influx of patients that need admission to the hospital that we might not have enough hospital beds for,” Spooner said.

Spooner explains that healthcare workers are urging people of all ages to practice safety precautions and work harder than ever to prevent the spread. Specifically, Spooner strongly urges people to “practice the same safety precautions that students practice in the classroom, outside of the classroom. If you’re hanging out with friends or gathering with others, wear a mask and stay socially distant. Try to hang out outside. It’s getting cold now, so more kids are going to be hanging out inside. It’s important that kids limit their social interactions outside of school. Do more zoom meetings, Facetime, or talk on the phone. Or if you’re going to hang out with a friend, make sure it is just one friend and try to do an outdoor activity. If you can’t be outside and socially distant, make sure to wear a mask.” 

   Spooner explains that the schools have been so efficient in protecting students and keeping them safe that others should practice those same safety precautions. 

   Garcia and the Ottawa County Health Department also have similar recommendations for students. “We strongly recommend virtual gatherings and to check in often with your friends. It’s very important to stay connected. Do things outside when possible. Encourage others to learn about COVID-19, remain diligent a little while longer, and be an advocate in your community for helping others to remain safe and healthy,” Garcia said.

   These recent months have been hard for everyone, especially for healthcare workers. During this time, it’s more important than ever that we work hard to stay safe and support our healthcare workers. While everyone else stays safe and quarantines at home, they’re out there saving lives and working hard. As Governor Whitmer stated, “healthcare workers are the heroes of this pandemic.” 

   Healthcare workers are facing many challenges during this pandemic. Spooner explains that “it’s hard because it’s gone on for so long, and healthcare workers are having to work under stressful conditions for a prolonged period of time. This is nothing like anything any of us have ever faced before working in healthcare today. I think healthcare workers also had added stress when many other people stayed home and everyone’s kids were home, but they still had to go to work. That was hard for a lot of our staff who had the guilt of feeling like they should be at home helping their child learn and wanting to be home to be there for their family, but they needed to rise to the call to care for the community.  It was a lot of pressure on working parents who did not have the ability to stay home with their families when all of this was going on.” 

   On top of all that, “it’s stressful because healthcare workers are concerned for their patients and also their own safety and not wanting to bring the virus home to their family. They have the added stress of also knowing that they need to be a role model and setting a good example in the community. People will look to healthcare workers to see what they’re doing outside of work as an example to follow,” Spooner said.

   Now is the time for us to work together towards the common goal of defeating this virus. Healthcare workers in Ottawa County are pleading more than ever that people follow safety precautions to keep ourselves, as well as others, safe. With the holiday season coming up, it’s more important than ever to work together. If we work together, holidays such as Christmas don’t have to be canceled. People have already had enough important events and days canceled this year. 

   Students can set the example by wearing our masks, supporting our local healthcare workers, and working hard to keep ourselves and those around us safe this Holiday season.