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It’s fair to say the past two weeks have been among the most challenging we’ve faced as leaders in healthcare. Despite all of our respective preparation, scenario-planning and effort to get ahead of disaster, we still find ourselves in a very strange new world – the world with COVID-19. Our plans and preparation are paying off, yet, we are facing an enemy that is in many ways unknowable until it reaches our community. We can’t fully anticipate what the local impact will be.
We want our community to know we are working together to preserve your health. Our area hospitals are actively communicating to look at the best use of resources, expertise and facilities in the region. And we are connected into even wider networks of expertise, such as the The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania, the PA Department of Health, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). We are listening, learning and taking action based on the best guidance available, with the resources we have available.
It’s not a secret there is a nationwide shortage of shortages of medical and protective equipment and supplies such as disposable masks, gowns, gloves, shoe covers and test kits. Your local healthcare facilities are working through these supply chain challenges daily. At this moment, local hospital volumes are actually lower than normal, so our supply levels are safe, though we continue putting all our effort into getting the additional supplies needed for a surge of patients with respiratory illness.
You’ve likely heard by now the symptoms of COVID-19: fever, dry cough and shortness of breath emerging 2 -14 days after contact exposure to coronavirus. The symptoms range from mild to severe. We strongly encourage patients with symptoms of shortness of breath, cough, and fever, PLUS a history of exposure to a confirmed COVID-19 patient to seek medical attention by calling your primary care doctor or the PA Department of Health. Patients with serious symptoms, such as severe shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, or those that are in critical condition and require emergency transport should call 9-1-1 and mention to the operator that they are having these types of symptoms.
We are prepared. Every hospital response doesn’t look the same, but through our health care continuity model, we’ve been planning, training and exercising for surge events (including infectious outbreaks like pandemic flu and COVID-19) for years. Right now, it is important to caution the community against panic, and to avoid the behaviors that overwhelm the healthcare delivery system. That includes unnecessary testing and spreading false information.
Patients with lesser symptoms without known exposure to a confirmed COVID-19 patient should contact their primary care physician’s office for advice, rather than visit an emergency department or urgent care to request testing. Your doctor might not recommend getting a test because your history doesn’t fit the guidance for COVID-19. Or, if your symptoms are mild your physician may recommend you stay home, rest, monitor symptoms, and avoid contact with others for 14 days, without getting tested. Why?
Broad, universal testing for COVID-19 is not indicated at this time based on PA Department of Health and CDC best practice recommendations. We need to conserve supplies of both testing materials and personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare personnel for the appropriate patients. This also helps us conserve hospital and ICU beds, supplies and other resources so that we are able to support our sickest patients. We’ll keep evaluating the local need for mass testing to respond in a way that fits this region. The screening and testing operations in other markets might not be needed here, or, they may look different as we adapt best practices for our needs. Learning and sharing, not comparing, is how we’ll stop the spread.
Healthcare facilities are also encountering new challenges in keeping up with the pace of information internally and externally. We are adapting and implementing protocols we haven’t had to put in place before, and working to quickly communicate these changes with staff. All the while we find ourselves in a daily battle to counter misinformation on social media and protect patient privacy. We ask the community to trust credible sources such as the PA Department of Health and the CDC instead of social media posts, even those of friends and neighbors, and to recognize that privacy is important, even in a very public health crisis.
Each facility is prepared to treat and protect patients, protect our staff, and maintain our supplies. These steps range from limiting visitors to limiting elective treatments and tests, and many other proactive measures. We do this hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst. We are confident our healthcare workforce is capable and ready. You can help them by using good judgement, practicing social distancing and hand hygiene, helping us preserve supplies, donating supplies if you have them, and communicating with local leaders to let them know how important this issue is to you.
Tom Kurtz, President, Chan Soon-Shiong Medical Center at Windber
William E. Caldwell, Market President, Conemaugh Health System
Stephen A. Wolfe, President and CEO, Indiana Regional Medical Center