More than 1,000 health care workers are out sick from Cleveland Clinic, MetroHealth and University Hospitals, whose leaders are pleading for the public's vigilance as COVID-19 cases explode.
If cases and hospitalizations continue to rise at the alarming rate seen this month, hospitals will be overwhelmed, said Dr. Tom Mihaljevic, president and CEO of Cleveland Clinic.
Ohio, much like the country, has continued to shatter records for COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
"If we have many of our staff out because of exposure, while there's a large influx of COVID patients, we will not be able to provide the best care to everyone who needs it," said Dr. Akram Boutros, MetroHealth president and CEO, during a virtual media briefing with the leaders of UH and the Clinic on Monday. "So I'm asking you, everyone in the community, to be even more vigilant about washing hands, watching your distance and wearing a mask."
The briefing came the day after the heads of six Northeast Ohio hospital systems purchased a full page ad in the Sunday edition of the Plain Dealer stressing the importance of continued compliance with public health guidelines to decrease risk of spreading coronavirus, as well as the flu.
Cleveland Clinic has more than 450 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, representing 8% to 9% of its overall capacity. University Hospitals has more than 200 COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized. Both of these figures are more than double the number of hospitalizations they had just two weeks ago. Overall, MetroHealth is at about 80% occupancy.
"Our analysis shows that if we don't do something very different, the number of inpatients are going to go from about 470 in Cuyahoga County to somewhere between 1,500 to 2,000 by the end of the year," Boutros said.
Keeping that number below 1,000 by continuing to abide by public health guidelines would be "incredibly helpful to the community and to the health systems," he said.
In the spring, as systems prepared for a surge of cases, the state was under a stay at home order, which helped "flatten the curve" of patients admitted to hospitals. Now, as holidays approach, cold weather forces people indoors and college students enter winter break, health care leaders are sounding the alarm.
"What we face is perhaps the most sobering situation during this pandemic," Mihaljevic said. "It is a turning point in the truest sense, and the power to do what is right is now in the hands of each member of every community."
While the past several months have given hospitals time to build inventories of personal protective equipment (PPE) and develop plans to flex their capacity. Their limitation could come in having healthy providers available to care for patients.
The Clinic has more than 800 employees out sick or quarantining, up from 580 on Thursday, Nov. 12. It has also expanded its postponement of nonessential surgical cases that require an inpatient stay through Friday, Nov. 20. University Hospitals has more than 200 caregivers sidelined due to COVID-19, and MetroHealth has 60. Contact tracing has shown that caregiver infections have been due to community spread, the hospital leaders said.
A vaccine — which seemed in March or April a distant possibility — is on its way. Recent news of promising early data from vaccine trials (including Moderna's Monday announcement that its vaccine was 94.5% effective) offer a light at the end of the tunnel.
"But that should not be a reason to loosen some of our vigilance," said UH president Dr. Cliff Megerian, noting we still have crucial months ahead, especially over the holidays.
Mihaljevic said individual efforts to help slow the spread of the disease can help communities avoid both care disruption and the widespread shutdowns that were seen in the spring.
"It would be a real tragedy to experience a substantial loss of life right as we are announcing a breakthrough, excellent news about the new vaccines that are showing a phenomenal efficacy and that are going to soon be available for our patients and our caregivers," he said.
Boutros said he's confident immunizations will begin in early 2021.
"In the meantime," he said, "we need your help to stave off a crisis for a little while longer, until the vaccine is available."
This story first appeared in our sister publication, Crain's Cleveland Business.