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Pandemic training being put to use for first time in Ohio Valley

Wheeling-Ohio County Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency Director Lou Vargo, left, and Assistant Wheeling Fire Chief Deric Jamison load supplies retrieved Thursday from the former Ohio Valley Medical Center. -- Eric Ayres

WHEELING — Local emergency response teams have seen many disaster situations played out in the past, but for the first time, plans and training scenarios for a pandemic response are being put to the test in the Ohio Valley.

Lou Vargo, director of the Wheeling-Ohio County Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, this week said that although local emergency personnel have never experienced a global pandemic, there are plans and protocols in place to follow for this unique and new circumstance.

“A lot of things we prepare for, we’re dealing with now,” Vargo said. “We have emergency plans for floods and blizzards and chemical spills, and we’ve practiced those and have dealt with those. We have a pandemic plan, and we’ve tested that plan, but now we’ve taken it off the shelf and we’ve activated that plan.

“This is the first (time) not only in West Virginia and in Ohio County, but globally that this pandemic plan has been put into use.”

Vargo noted the importance of agencies working together for a common goal with the COVID-19 pandemic response. He said Ohio County works well with all of the neighboring county EMAs and agencies, and they share resources in times of need.

“We’re just good neighbors,” he said. “We work well with Marshall County, Brooke County and all of the other counties. Dodridge County found a supply of N95 masks, so they divided that surplus to the rest of the counties in the region. That’s the kind of example of how we are going to work together. If there’s a bigger need down in Marshall County, and we have a good supply of something, we’re going to share it.”

This was one of the primary reason local officials performed a walk-through at the former Ohio Valley Medical Center facility in Wheeling this week. The property owner, Medical Properties Trust Inc., allowed city and county officials to take stock in various supplies and medical equipment left behind at the former hospital site. Some of the items were gathered for immediate use, while other items were inventoried and kept locked away at OVMC for future access if the need arises.

“There’s a national shortage of personal protective equipment for our first responders and our hospital personnel,” Vargo said. “We did come across a lot of disposable gowns and gloves, hand sanitizers, and a big thing we have had a hard time coming across is face shields, so when first responders are dealing with patients in these situations, there’s no exposure to their faces.”

Regardless of the nature of emergency medical calls during the pandemic, first responders must now take extra precautions in case patients have been exposed to the coronavirus, regardless of whether or not they have been diagnosed. The supplies retrieved from OVMC will be put to use on the front lines of the local battle against the pandemic by local emergency medical technicians, Vargo noted.

“We will take it back to the fire department and to the county, and we’ll distribute those to our first responders,” he said. “It’s not like we’re stock piling or hoarding these items, we’re just preparing for the future. We need to get these supplies for our first responders for when they get out there.”

Other items of note found inside the OVMC campus include negative pressure units and more than a dozen ventilators, including an infant ventilator.

“It was like finding a pot of gold in there,” Vargo said of the ventilators. “If things are going to get bad like we’re seeing in New York and in these bigger cities, it’s essential to have those. We also found anesthesia machines, which have ventilators on them and can be converted for use as ventilators if need be.”

Vargo noted that the numbers of COVID-19 cases in the state and in the Ohio Valley are just starting to rise at a more rapid rate, and the brunt of the pandemic is still expected to come in the future.

“When we look at that bell curve, we’re not at the top yet,” he said. “So we are expecting it to get worse.”

While city leaders and officials at Wheeling Hospital this week expressed differing opinions on the need to ready OVMC as a “regional back-up” facility in case the pandemic situation escalates, Vargo indicated that using the hospital’s existing rooms and equipment would be ideal if a worst-case scenario unfolds.

In past disaster situations, the emergency response has used high school gymnasiums and vacant hotel rooms or dormitories for triage or emergency event staging areas. City officials noted that OVMC was a functioning hospital just before it closed its doors in September.

“This is an entirely different animal,” Vargo said of OVMC. “To have a hospital like this that we can actually reactivate and use is a great asset. We looked at the intensive care and cardiac care units here. Those are glass enclosed individual rooms that we can isolate a patient in there. It would be an ideal situation if we could get that functioning again.”

The city is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is making plans for “worst-case scenarios” in the COVID-19 pandemic response. The Huntington District of the USACE is looking at regional locations that can be used for emergency operations in the case of a drastic surge in coronavirus cases.

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