Nurse's orders

Linda Lee Baird
A recent graphic from Jenny Bell's "Easy-to-Understand COVID-19 Stats" Facebook page.

Nurse practitioner Jenny Bell’s colleagues call her the “COVID Queen.” It’s both a sign of respect and a title hard-earned. Since March, Bell has been testing Columbus’ vulnerable populations for the virus and counseling them, too. From the clinic she dubbed her “COVID Castle,” Bell has seen firsthand the virus’ devastating impact on the infected, their families and health-care workers. It’s exhausting, grueling work.

“We’ve completed so many marathons, and we’re still asking them to run,” Bell said of her colleagues in the health-care industry. Frustrated that this message didn’t seem to be getting through to the public, Bell began sharing daily “Easy-to-Understand” COVID-19 statistics on Facebook. Her colorful, comprehensive charts quickly found an audience. In addition to Franklin County's daily case volume broken down by age, Bell includes data that are crucial to understanding Ohio's trajectory: local and statewide hospital capacity numbers, the availability of critical care beds in Franklin County and the percentage of hospitalized Ohioans that are COVID-positive (25% as of Monday). She compiles information from several public health websites to give the most complete picture she can.

The numbers detailed in her graphics justify Bell’s greatest worry: the virus overrunning our medical system. “The normal, everyday things that happen to people that are emergencies … we’re starting to not be able to keep up with that,” said Bell, who hopes that by making the data clear, and by sharing her experiences on the front lines, more people will do their part to act safely.

“All of this is deeply, deeply troubling," Bell said of the state's COVID trajectory. "And what’s even more troubling is that it doesn’t seem like the general population understands this.”

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Even seemingly reassuring information may mask underlying problems, Bell said. For example, while the state currently has plenty of ventilators, those aren't much good without respiratory therapists to operate them. With healthcare workers being quarantined and getting sick, the ratio of patients to caregivers is in danger of getting out of whack.

Further, Bell cautioned that testing isn’t the panacea some assume, explaining that a negative test is just a snapshot in time. “As soon as you test and you walk out the door of the testing place, that test is basically outdated," she said, noting that false negatives are also a common problem, especially when testing occurs too soon after exposure.

Yet she hears regularly from patients about group interactions, even after they begin feeling ill. “People are still very ignorant of what is going on, and what the consequences of a single action can be,” she said. While these stories often leave her angry, Bell places the blame squarely on state and federal leadership for muddling the message to the public. “It’s really not that hard [to reduce cases] if you’re willing to stand up and be forthright and tell people what they need to know," she said. "Because people, if they’re educated, they’re usually pretty good about making the right decisions.”

Bell made headlines earlier this year as a primary congressional candidate for Ohio's 12th District. When asked whether she might consider another run for government, especially given her critique of leadership, she was undecided. While politics and the “games you have to play in order to lead” don’t appeal to her, she said, there’s a piece that she aspires to, whether or not it’s through elected office.

“I like the thought of representing people," Bell said. "I always have been that person who wants to stand up for people. … I’m never gonna stop doing that.”