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Hospital heads talk readiness as COVID-19 cases tick up in counties nationwide

In May, the number of COVID-19 cases in Douglas County, Kansas, increased by 14, from 52 to 66. In June, the number of cases increased by 63, bringing the total to 159. It was a drastic uptick in cases that caused the county to delay moving into its fourth stage of reopening.

Douglas County is one of a number of counties across the country seeing an increase in cases as communities reopen. Ogden Newspapers spoke to three hospital leaders in Kansas, Michigan and Ohio about how prepared they feel their hospitals are to handle cases in light of recent statistics.

Russ Johnson, president and CEO of LMH Health, the local hospital in Lawrence, Kansas, said his hospital is “absolutely” better prepared to handle an influx of hospitalizations related to COVID-19 than it was a couple of months ago, and noted that the hospital has seen a “significant” increase in positive tests. He warned that while reopening the economy might have led people to believe the danger has passed, “the virus is not gone.”

“We all have to be hopeful that there is a light, but as our infectious disease physicians have advised, it is likely at the end of a long tunnel,” Johnson said.

Chuck Sherwin, a fellow of the American College of Healthcare Executives and president of the MidMichigan Medical Center – Alpena, also said his hospital is better prepared to handle a potential increase in COVID-19 patients.

Sherwin said that had the hospital seen a surge early on, they would not have been as prepared. But due to the extra time, the hospital has “identified multiple other locations throughout the community where we can provide care if necessary.”

He mentioned the Alpena Combat Readiness Center, the Alpena Community College and local recreation centers. He also said the hospital is doing drive-up triage services, has enough medical supplies, is testing asymptomatic people and is providing telemedicine services.

Alpena has currently seen the curve in cases “flatten out quite a bit,” Sherwin said, but he expects to see an increase in hospitalizations over the next couple months. As of Monday, 107 people in Alpena County had been infected with COVID-19, The Alpena News reported.

Alexandria Cruey, director of marketing and communications for Fisher-Titus Medical Center in Norwalk, Ohio, said the surge plans that were created at the beginning of the pandemic are still valid and ready to be implemented as needed.

Like the Michigan hospital, Cruey said Fisher-Titus is in close collaboration with three other nearby hospitals, and that the four-hospital collaborative is connected to the Hospital Council of Northwest Ohio. Thus, Cruey said the interconnected hospital system will enable everyone in the community who needs care to receive it.

As of Wednesday, there were 177 cases of COVID-19 cases in Huron County, including two that resulted in deaths.

While Johnson said hospital bed availability is a concern, he noted that LMH Health has had the time to convert space once used as overflow into a complete COVID-19 unit.

Johnson said his team at LMH Health has several metrics that they review daily in order to forecast potential hospital admissions based on the number of positive test results and ages of those infected, as well as a group of clinicians who gather daily to discuss the potential for a surge and the potential need for supplies and staffing.

Having enough staff to handle an influx in patients could be another challenge, Johnson said.

“We currently have enough staff,” he explained. “If we experience a surge, we have a plan on how to allocate staff to best care for our COVID patients and all other patients of the hospital.”

Sherwin said MidMichigan Medical Center in Alpena could handle a 35 percent increase in patients with the amount of staff they currently have on hand. Because they are part of the MidMichigan hospital system, however, Sherwin said they have given privileges to 120 additional medical providers outside their region to work at the Alpena location, should the need arise.

Cruey said Fisher-Titus has prepared for this potential issue by cross-training employees.

“Through our preparations for the expected surge, we cross-trained members of the team to refine and expand their skills in their areas of expertise to ensure we have a trained and capable team to provide the needed care,” she said.

Like the other hospitals, LMH Health has reinstated elective surgeries. Johnson said his hospital has implemented protocols to protect patients who come in for wellness or routine visits, as well as those who come in to the emergency department. It’s important to take care of one’s health during this time, Johnson said, adding “to not let fear stand in the way of important, sometimes lifesaving, treatments.”

Sherwin said he expects it will take a year for the hospital to recover financially from the economic hardships of COVID-19. But other organizations aren’t so lucky, he said.

“For certain organizations, it never got better,” he said. “They’ve closed.”

Sherwin said he expects to see similar viruses to COVID-19 in the future.

“It’s my belief that we are going to continue to see pandemics from time to time,” he said. “We are certainly prepared for the next one.”

Johnson said that it is not correct for people to believe the danger of the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, however.

“People have assumed since communities are opening, the danger has passed,” he said. “That is not correct and we are seeing the evidence of this misunderstanding across the country.

“If our community follows this notion that the virus is going away,” he concluded, “we could potentially find ourselves in a worse situation than when the virus began.”

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