Doctor: Reopening a ‘precarious situation’

Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Emergency Physician Stephen Sample sets up a webcam system before his video interview on MSNBC at his home in Jasper in early April. Dr. Sample has been interviewed multiple times on MSNBC about COVID-19 in Dubois County.


JASPER — Indiana is getting back on track. But is the time right?

A local emergency room physician says it’s a tough call.

Dr. Stephen Sample, who works at Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center in Jasper and is also the Dubois County Emergency Services medical director, is cognizant of the frustrations and financial pains many are experiencing in restricted times.

But he also knows that questions persist, making the gradual return to pre-COVID life a “precarious situation.”

“Are we ready for it?” he asked rhetorically. “That is a fantastic question that we will probably know the answer [to] in about four to six weeks, is my guess. This is going to be one of those things where I don’t think that you can know upfront. You’re going to have to wait until we all get back together again and see what happens.”

He explained that during that time, lives could be sent back to where they were when tight social distancing precautions were first implemented by the state government in March. Sample said that Dubois County will experience “a pickup, no question,” in cases — both because testing supplies have increased and because residents are returning to work.

“All it really takes is a really hard outbreak in a couple of those places,” he said of spaces like nursing homes and factories, “and it could get interesting.”

The county is relatively protected by its geography, he noted. One of his biggest fears, however, is that mask-wearing and social distancing practices are deteriorating locally.

“And that makes the physician in me very uncomfortable,” he said. “Because I’m fearful that when people say, ‘OK, we’re opening for business again,’ that people are just going to say, ‘That means we’re all clear.’”

He continued: “And that is the furthest from the truth. We are not all clear. We are just acknowledging the reality that without some economic engine, that we’re going to start hurting people, even more, that way.”

Sample believes a balance must be found and struck between protection and reopening. Attempting to minimize huge spikes in illness is a priority of his, as is having the adequate equipment to care for those in need. The latter is especially important at Memorial, he noted, because the hospital has fewer resources than hospitals in major cities, meaning it is easier to overwhelm.

Still, he did speak of ways positive strides have been made behind the scenes. Memorial staff have learned from hospitals in areas that were hit with big influxes of patients, better informing the local team of how to effectively manage the virus and utilize ventilators on hand.

“We know more about this than we did,” Sample said. “And so I think that we’ll be able to help people even better than we would have been [able to] upfront.”

He said a second pullback is possible in the fall, adding that there is a “high likelihood” of a call for increased precautions when the flu and other seasonal sicknesses hit.
“It’s got the potential, certainly, for kind of a series of stops and starts,” Sample explained.

He also spoke of the need for more accurate, sensitive testing. If larger chunks of the population could be tested with confidence, what he described as “hyper-local pullbacks” could be implemented, which could prevent the widespread pausing of lives and economies — and instead target smaller clusters.

Monday, the Dubois County Health Department announced the first death of a Dubois County resident from the novel coronavirus. A second death was announced late this morning. Fifty-eight people in Dubois County have tested positive to date. Twenty-six of those cases have recovered.

Sample stressed the need for locals to continue to wear masks, wash their hands regularly and practice social distancing. He said to do this not only to protect yourself but also to shield others and demonstrate that you value the community.

“Really, wearing that mask is a sign of selfless, loving community,” Sample said.

He later added: “Before, community was high-fiving, and shaking hands and hugging. And now me showing my respect for my community is staying 6 feet back from them and wearing my mask.”

Like many people in Dubois County, he is ready for the world to reopen.

He believes that it can be done.

But if it isn’t executed correctly, he said, “we are going to end up locked back down, even tighter.”

More on