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As Butler County cases steepen, officials preparing for expected coronavirus surge

The playgrounds at Smith Park in Middletown has caution tape and signs indicating it is closed due to COVID-19. Many playgrounds in Butler County are off limits as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF
The playgrounds at Smith Park in Middletown has caution tape and signs indicating it is closed due to COVID-19. Many playgrounds in Butler County are off limits as a precaution against the spread of coronavirus. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

Although there are 43 confirmed coronavirus cases and one death in a county of more than 380,000, Butler County officials are warning a surge is coming and people should continue to heed warnings.

Health Commissioner Jennifer Bailer said the state projects a surge of cases between mid-April and mid-May, meaning the number of sick needing medical care could outstrip resources.

She said prior to Monday night, when seven new cases were confirmed, the county was experiencing zero to three cases per day and “we’re getting to the point where things are going to get worse.”

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“We will have more people needing spaces in hospitals than there will be spaces for them,” she said. “This is frank talk, this is hard talk, we will be moving into a situation where we will potentially exceed our health care’s ability to respond to us.”

Bailer has launched a social media blitz with the hashtag #StaytheHeckatHomeBC, and officials, like the three county commissioners, have posted videos pushing her physical distancing message. However, she said even staying at home poses its own potential threat.

“I like kids to play and be out in the sun, we’ve had some good weather here lately and it’s been really great for mental health,” Bailer said. “I think kids in the same family ought to be out playing in the yard. Having a whole neighborhood come together and play in close proximity together no, that would be considered a mass gathering.”

Bailer has been issuing an epidemiology report three times per week that outlines characteristics of the outbreak here, and she is reducing the frequency to Mondays and Thursdays. The report from Monday showed 31 confirmed cases and 12 people had recovered after a median 17-day recuperation period. The largest number of cases, 61 percent were in Liberty and West Chester townships, with nine and 10 cases respectively.

Bailer said it is too early to draw any conclusions from those particular numbers.

“We’re really not sure, we only have 38 cases, I’m telling you two things, 38 is a lot for Butler County at the same time it’s not a very big sample size,” she said “Enabling us to draw conclusions from that you really need a much larger group of people in your sample to look for any trends.”

The report showed 10 people were hospitalized as of noon on Monday and two people who contracted the virus were health care workers or first responders. The median age of those with the disease was 55 and 13 people were in the high risk, namely elderly or with underlying health issues.

A large task force of about 30 community leaders has been meeting once a week since mid-March and there is a smaller surge task force — among other smaller work groups — convening more frequently, according the Butler County Emergency Management Agency Director Matt Haverkos.

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He said with elective surgeries and other routine medical procedures on hold, the eight hospitals in the county have a low census of patients and he has heard some medical staff may be furloughed right now. They have plans in place, with the help of the state emergency management, health department and National Guard, to be able to quickly respond.

“Right now census is low but we know that census is going to go up,” he told the Journal-News. “The question becomes how high is it going to go, we’re providing facilities, equipment and hopefully staffing to meet that need.”

Haverkos said he and the Emergency Operations Center planning staff has been “meeting” regularly on phone calls with the health departments, hospitals, everyone that touches the crisis, including chambers of commerce leaders and others who are working on a recovery plan for businesses after the worst is over.

He said all of the hospitals, more than 50 long-term care facilities, first responders and others that require personal protective equipment to do their jobs have access to a survey that communicates to the EOC the supplies they need. While PPE are not plentiful, to-date the EOC has distributed 435 boxes of N95 particle blocking masks, 2,100 surgical masks, 257 boxes of gloves and other gear that was received through the National Stockpile and donations.

Dr. Michelle Burch, who serves as the health district’s medical director, issued a letter regarding the virus.

“Most of us have yet to see the true impacts of the virus itself. So far, most of us likely haven’t seen our family members, neighbors, or coworkers endure days of fevers, debilitating coughing, and shortness of breath,” Burch wrote adding, “Slowing the spread of the coronavirus is not just about ensuring enough hospital beds and ventilators, it is about protecting our families, our neighbors, and our community. We are all in this together and the choices we make now will shape our collective future.”

Butler County coronavirus by the numbers:

Confirmed cases: 43

Deaths: 1

Patients recovered: 12*

Hospitalizations: 10*

* Numbers as of Monday

Source: Butler County Health District