Ohio Hospitals Dealing With COVID-19 Deniers Amid Worst Surge Yet

Nov 20, 2020

There are more than twice as many people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Ohio now as were a month ago. In some places, hospitals are trying to treat a flood of patients with fewer staff because their own employees have tested positive for the virus or are in quarantine.

Health care workers are telling terrible stories of what they're seeing, including in Franklin County, the first county in the state to rise to the highest public health alert level.

“I have seen illness and death on a scale that I have never seen in my career. I have admitted families. I've had to put spouses next to each other while one or both die,” said Dr. George Onderko, a nocturnist at Ohio State University's Wexner Medical Center, specializing in overnight care.

Onderko’s colleague at Ohio State, Dr. Vignesh Doraiswamy, is also a hospitalist at Nationwide Children's Hospital. Doraiswamy said he's seen people under 60 who've had to transition to hospice care because they caught the coronavirus.

“There's certainly multiple cases of this happening to people," Doraiswamy said. "And I unfortunately have seen folks who I otherwise thought would do quite well, fall very, very sick. And occasionally, unfortunately, some have even passed away."

Family physician Ean Bett with OhioHealth said most health care workers take COVID seriously, and personally.

“It's also a stress or strain to know that your friends and colleagues and patients may in fact be ill with COVID because the things that you see on the news are real," Bett said. "People are getting very sick."

Dr. Carla O’Day directs emergency services at St. Vincent Charity Hospital in Cleveland and St. John Medical Center in Westlake. She thinks these numbers could be traced back to Halloween gatherings and events, which has her worried about the upcoming holidays.

“Anybody that believes this is a hoax, I mean, I've seen this virus. I've seen people become so incredibly ill with pneumonia and what it does to their lungs, and they deteriorate so quickly, that I have great respect for the virus and what it can do,” O’Day said. “And it's got some long term effects on it, too.”

That's what concerns Rick Lucas, who heads the 4,200 member Ohio State University nurses organization, especially when he hears people say that nearly everyone who gets COVID won't die.

“That doesn't take into account the decreased lung capacity that you could have, or the stroke you can have after, or the cardiac complications that you're going to carry with you your entire life,” Lucas said. “You might not ever recover back to baseline to what you were, to the level of function that you had before COVID.”

Onderko said he's been confronted by COVID patients who say they can't have the disease because it doesn't exist.

“Every night, every night we deal with folks who don't believe they have COVID. It doesn't matter if you don't believe in COVID, because it believes in you,” Onderko said.

It's happened to Doraiswamy, too.

“I've had patients who are on high amounts of oxygen tell me, ‘What do I really have? I don't think I have COVID.’ And I don't know what to tell them,” Doraiswamy said. “Sometimes I said, look, I gain nothing by lying to you. But this is – we tested you for it, your chest CT, the scan shows us that your lung has been affected by it. You're on a fair amount of oxygen and you're telling me you're working hard to breathe. Like, this isn't a lie. This is what's happening.”

Medical professionals have been fighting the coronavirus for nine months, with the worst part of the war potentially to come, with a double shot of flu season and COVID fatigue. O’Day said the turnaround on people's attitudes is sometimes hard to take.

“When this first started, we had signs in our neighborhood that said, ‘You are a hero, thank you.’ Now, you know, there was some information out that we were diagnosing COVID because we got more money for that diagnosis," O'Day said. "I mean, how ridiculous is that? So it's been a very difficult time and that that ‘hero’ part seems to have faded away."

And Lucas said misinformation is dangerous.

“It seems a lot that the folks that want to exclaim that type of thing want to excuse their bad behavior and lack of caring for others and don't want to wear a mask. And they try to justify that,” Lucas said. “It's very contagious. It's very devastating, and it is very much overwhelming our health care systems right now.”

Onderko summed up the fears and advice of the medical community for celebrations of Thanksgiving and beyond.

“I hear a lot of the recommendations coming up for the holidays," Onderko said. "You know, don’t gather with 10 or more this, that and the other. Don't gather with anybody. Just stay home. It's bad."