Nearly one year ago I left government to join the team at Oswego Health amid a global pandemic.
In the past year I have seen literal heroic action firsthand as our community managed a tragic surge of COVID-19 infections and the miraculous distribution of the vaccine.
Daily for the past year, I have seen physicians reach outside their comfort zone and adapt to new, collaborative approaches to medicine; nurses team up to support one another both at work and at home; and office staff push themselves like never before.
It is their actions, along with the vaccine, that has allowed our community to begin reopening. It is because of their work caring for members of our community in the Intensive Care Unit, the Emergency Department, our Urgent Care Centers, primary care and nursing home settings, let alone life-saving specialty surgical services that have allowed our community to entertain removing masks and celebrating summer.
One of those celebrations was recent, when my brother was home. As a Marine Corps veteran a few family friends saw him and thanked him for his service to our country. It gives me great pride when folks do that, but I do know that appreciation, while well-intended, isn’t why he chose to serve and “bear the battle.”
It’s also not why health care professionals do what they do. I’ve learned this past year that saying “thank you” for their service caring for us isn’t enough. Words matter, but actions ring more true. At Oswego Health we are mission-focused and as I embark on my second year in leadership, action is the purpose of my words.
If we as a community truly appreciate the care that our doctors, nurses, technicians, and professionals provide us, now is the time to truly show it.
Oswego County has hovered around a 50 percent vaccination rate for several months now. Vaccine is readily available and still, half our eligible Oswego County population remains unvaccinated. Some of those folks are younger, 12- to 18-year-olds, who only became eligible right before summer. I cannot encourage vaccination enough as I have seen with my own eyes the impact it has had on our community. We are starting to see one another again and it is wonderful. Sadly though, that essential miracle is not yet available to everyone.
Kids under 12 are still ineligible for vaccination and with schools reopening soon, district superintendents and board members are discussing return-to-school plans. Oswego Health and other health care providers are in regular conversation with school leaders across the county to ensure students return to a healthy learning environment. Ensuring that children, ineligible for the vaccine through no fault of their own, do not come into contact with a COVID-19 positive individual should be all our goal. Some schools that have already begun re-opening in the southern part of the United States have seen a significant increase in infection among children including some requiring hospitalization. I think we can all agree sick, potentially hospitalized, children is something none of us want to see in our community.
It is for that reason after reviewing the recent uptick of pediatric cases and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, along with discussions with our medical team, Oswego Health recommends that all people, including children, resume masking indoors in congregate settings.
I am aware that the masking of students has become a political hot button topic. The conversation centers on parental choice when it comes to sending children to school with a masking requirement. Schools as publicly funded entities must find that balance between doing what is right for the taxpayer and what is right for the education of students. I would like to think that the health and safety of students fit right in-between.
This is even more personal for me as my wife is an educator and our children are elementary age. Our kids are not yet eligible for the vaccine. They have been diligent about masking when in public, congregate settings. Certainly, they’d prefer to be without masks, but they also understand the extraordinary times they are growing up in.
It is that thought process that I hope people will consider as we head toward the fall and think about bringing together unvaccinated children through no fault of their own. From my desk, the biggest concern I have beyond the health and well-being of my family is what was shared with me from an ICU nurse this week.
This nurse, providing care to some of the most ill members of our community, said flatly, “if we have to open another COVID unit this fall, I’m not sure I want to be in health care anymore.”
It’s that statement from a nurse on the front-lines of this battle, someone who has provided over a year of care in a pandemic environment that I hope we all keep in mind. This virus has proven that the health and well-being of our community is everyone’s responsibility. Seeing sick people in the hospital struggling to breathe with COVID-19 is heartbreaking and traumatic to providers trained to manage that care. Seeing children in that setting could be the push too far for healthcare professionals that we all rely on.
At the end of the day, the vaccination works. If we want our community to “return to normal” please get vaccinated for yourself; for your family; for our young people waiting for their vaccination opportunity. Get vaccinated for our front-line heroes who care for us when we need them the most. Please, get vaccinated Oswego County.
Michael C. Backus is the chief operating officer of Oswego Hospital and executive vice president of Oswego Health. He is the former clerk of Oswego County.