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Butler County health care workers were on front line of pandemic

Some historic moments feel more obvious than others — it’s clear things are going to be different afterward.

The COVID-19 pandemic was one such moment, and the people who saw that more than any others were health care workers.

John Krepps, of Harmony, gets his first Moderna COVID-19 shot from UPMC nurse manager Liz Brunner at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex drive-thru vaccination event Wednesday, March 17, 2021. Butler Eagle file photo

At doctor’s offices, nursing facilities and hospitals nationwide, medical staff were among the first to deal with new variants, new policies and new challenges.

In Butler County, just over 2,800 people were hospitalized for COVID-19, according to Dr. Carol Fox, chief medical officer for Independence Health System.

According to data collected by the state, there were nearly 56,000 cases in Butler County and more than 900 deaths.

Karen Rich, Butler Memorial Hospital's first COVID-19 ICU patient to be treated with a ventilator, leaves the hospital in 2020. Butler Eagle file photo

From the very start, there was something new to learn or a challenge to face nearly every day, from new policies to more contagious variants to shortages of personal protective equipment like masks.

“Health care providers are heroes every day, but when you’re fighting an enemy like COVID that’s constantly changing? The energy that took, it was amazing to see it,” Fox said. “Ordinary people did extraordinary things.”

That uncertainty was widespread at the time. Al and Rita Lane were the first Butler County residents to contract the virus in March 2020. There was much uncertainty, and while both recovered, Rita Lane told the Eagle in 2021 that she was still dealing with the aftereffects.

“I got lung scarring that I'll have for the rest of my life,” she said

Fox said one of the most important lessons from the pandemic was also a quite basic one: the vital importance of teamwork.

Residents of Concordia’s Lund Care Center line up to wave at family passing buy in a parade of cars in spring 2020. With concerns about spreading COVID-19, families stayed in their cars for the brief drive-by visit to see relatives at the care center in Cabot. It was the first time residents were able to see family members in person since the lockdown. Butler Eagle file photo

“We also learned the importance of partnerships with the community,” she said.

Those partnerships, especially with other health care providers like nursing and long-term care facilities, became essential when the first vaccines became available.

“Hospitals were responsible for getting vaccines out at the beginning of the process,” Fox said. “We really learned the importance of creativity.”

Creativity helped doctors and nurses learn to use telemedicine more effectively.

Early on, providers had to use telemedicine as a way to perform triage when patients couldn’t come to the hospital or to a doctor’s office to be seen. Where before the pandemic, those visits would have been in person, allowing the provider to touch the patient, telemedicine forced them to become more Sherlock Holmes-like in their approach, Fox said.

“I think that’s been a good thing,” she said.

Brittney Barnett, a student in Butler County Community College's nursing program, administers a COVID-19 vaccination to Marianna Miller, 75, of Cranberry Township, at Butler Memorial Hospital's COVID-19 clinic in 2021. Butler Eagle file photo

In the wake of COVID, telemedicine is going to remain important.

“Telemedicine is a great way to get services,” Fox said. “It’s a great way to get that resource to patients in remote areas.”

Creativity also helped when, in the early months of the pandemic, there were shortages of masks and other protective equipment.

Providers also had to be much more cautious about using personal protective equipment. Prior to the pandemic, N95 masks weren’t needed as often, Fox said, so learning to safely put on and take off the equipment over and over was essential.

The shortage of masks at the beginning of the pandemic also points to another lesson it taught health care workers: the fragility of the supply chain.

Over the last several years there have been several times where either the pandemic or extreme weather have choked off supplies of essential equipment, from masks and gloves to IV fluid and vital medicine.

“That impacts your everyday functions in a hospital setting,” Fox said.

That has had long-term effects. In April 2022, a survey showed as many as a quarter of doctors were planning to leave their position within three years.

“Our survey showed, going as far as six months into the pandemic, half the (clinicians) still didn’t have PPE,” Rebecca Etz, co-director of the Green Center told online medical journal JAMA Network. “People were wearing coffee filters and garbage bags to take care of their patients.”

Concordia Haven resident Pat Goodman, 82, receives a COVID-19 vaccine in 2021 from retired physician Dr. Frank Brown. Local pharmacy Saxonburg Drug administered the Moderna vaccine to 60 residents of the Concordia Haven apartments. Butler Eagle file photo

Another lesson from the pandemic is the importance of data and of tracking emerging diseases.

Basic steps such as prescreening patients by asking whether they’ve traveled, whether they’ve had a fever or other symptoms of a contagious disease and whether they’ve been in contact with someone who is sick are now standard procedure, something Fox expects to continue.

“We’re much more hypervigilant,” she said.

A final lesson Fox learned was the resilience of local health care workers.

In the first weeks, people applauded for the health care providers who were facing an unknown and scary situation. As time went on, the praise from the public waned but workers continued to face emerging new variants that proved more deadly.

During the worst days of the pandemic, health care workers often were the only people there for patients who were very sick or dying.

“Health care workers had that gravity of ‘I have to be there for this patient,’” Fox said. “I think it was so isolating for everyone out there, but for health care workers it was a double hit.”

The first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine being administered on Feb. 3, 2021 to a Butler County resident. Butler Eagle file photo

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