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Experts explain impact of pandemic on the health care system, what we can expect for the future

Experts explain impact of pandemic on the health care system, what we can expect for the future

From COVID-19 survivors to frontline workers to health care professionals, the pandemic has put stress on everyone. From the start, our nation relied on the people working behind the scenes to get us to the point we’re at now. Last year, the pandemic shocked us all and created an unexpected chain reaction. COVID patients relied on health care workers. The community relied on contact tracers. And now, we’re all relying on the Department of Health to help us get vaccines into as many arms as possible. It wasn’t always smooth sailing, but those I spoke to say we’ve come a long way. At its onset, doctors and nurses snapped into action, turning their attention to COVID patients desperate for their care.

“It is very difficult holding someone’s hand as they are on a pressure mask because they don’t want to be intubated. And, they’re on the same pressure mask for two weeks, trying to get an opportunity to eat, trying to get an opportunity to take that pressure mask off. And, their oxygen would drop so far it was unsafe for the to eat,” said CHI St. Alexius Medical Director Dr. J’Patrick Fahn.

There was no time to waste. Hospitals gathered what PPE they could, slowed elective surgeries to make time for COVID patients and did their best to discover effective treatments for the virus.

“There was shock. There was concern. And, I would say there was some misbelief that this was actually happening in the year 2020 given our medical technology across the world,” said CHI St. Alexius Health Market President Kurt Schley.

The surge hit North Dakota in mid-October.

“On a daily basis, we were tracking the number of open beds we had in the state and the number of ICU beds we had in the state. And on some days at the height of North Dakota’s surge, if that’s what you want to call it, we had between two and five ICU beds in the state. If we’re having this conversation two years ago, that would’ve been unheard of,” said Schley.

For every person that contracts COVID, a contact tracer makes a call to their loved ones who have been in close quarters.

“I was working 60 hours plus. My days would go from 7:30 a.m. until 9, 9:30 p.m. some days. I was working Saturdays and Sundays. And, it was stressful. I had to make sure to take breaks myself just to eat,” said North Dakota Department of Health Director Of Field Services and Contact Tracer Brenton Nesemeier.

Nesemeier says when numbers peaked in North Dakota, his team members were making more than 30 calls a day. He says cases have dwindled, which has allowed his team to focus on other vital roles. “Our contact tracers are starting to help out with our vaccination team and calling people to let them know that they’re eligible for the vaccine,” said Nesemeier.

But, the vaccine rollout has been hectic from its start.

“We really don’t know how much vaccine we’re going to get in the state until the week before,” said North Dakota Department of Health Immunization Director Molly Howell. The federal government allocates doses to each state. Then, the Health Department must decide which providers get the vaccine and how many doses each provider will be allotted.

“When we were in phase 1A, we were allocating doses to providers based on the number of health care workers they had or the number of long-term care residents they needed to vaccinate,” Howell said. The state has made it through to tier 1C, and essential workers are now able to get vaccinated. But, mutant strains have thrown a curve ball.

“Until we have a better handle on how well contained these variant strains are, it’s incumbent on all of us to maintain the same sort of precautions that helped us keep this pandemic under better control,” said Sanford Health Infectious Disease Consultant Dr. Noe Mateo. As for the future, Dr. Mateo says herd immunity plays a key role in getting back to normal. He says if not enough people get vaccinated to reach 70% immunity, we could be seeing restrictions and health precautions for years to come. “It’s just going to be a situation where things are never going to completely stop. Instead of boiling, things will just be simmering.

That’s what we’re in for; a real long, slow simmer,” said Mateo. A year of darkness is ending with silver lining. For every COVID death in North Dakota, there has been at least 67 survivors. Hospital directors say their institutions have gotten stronger. Doctors say there is a newfound sense of community within their profession. And, the DOH says vaccines provide the long-awaited hope that we will eventually make it out.

More than 264,000 people have been vaccinated in the state. The Centers for Disease Control released new guidance Monday stating vaccinated Americans can gather with other vaccinated or low risk people indoors without wearing a mask or social distancing.

Emmeline Ivy Reporting, KFYR
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