“We are currently into our emergency disaster plan,” said Roger Reamer, CEO of Memorial Health Care Systems, but that's no reason for local residents to worry. Actually, the emergency disaster plan is a good thing.
“Every hospital has to have one in the nation,” Reamer said March 26, and their plans are evaluated annually by the federal government.
Having the plan in place and activated means the hospital, which serves Seward County and surrounding areas, is prepared to handle an influx of patients related to the COVID-19 disease—or any other infection, for that matter.
“We've been in this realm before with Ebola and H1N1. This is something we're geared up to do, whether a surge of patients comes or not,” Reamer said.
The hospital has a designated infectious disease zone, which includes a separate nursing station and rooms closed off from other patients.
Staff who are assigned to care for patients in that zone each day do not come in contact with other staff. Services like laundry go out of the zone separately to keep infections contained.
Reamer said that's nothing new to COVID-19.
“We have other infectious diseases that we manage on a regular basis,” he said. “This is (something) normal that we're all trained in, so we're feeling pretty comfortable about that.”
He said the hospital's larger concern is trying to be a part of a community effort to stop any public health issue.
MHCS has postponed most elective surgeries—ones that aren't crucial to saving someone's life right now—but those that are immediately necessary will still go on.
The reduced number of elective surgeries will allow the hospital to better manage its supply of personal protective equipment, like gloves, gowns and masks.
Partners and ventilators
Reamer said MHCS also is communicating regularly with its tertiary hospitals, or partner facilities that specialize in the care needed for patients with COVID-19.
For MHCS, those include CHI Health St. Elizabeth and Bryan Health, both in Lincoln.
“We'd rather have them (COVID-19 patients) all together than around the state,” Reamer said.
They are all kept in the loop on each hospital's bed capacity and the number of ventilator machines available.
Reamer said if the need arises, it will work sort of like a patient swap.
St. Elizabeth and Bryan can take COVID-19 patients from Seward, and Seward can take other patients who are recovering from surgeries or other illnesses so they're not taking up beds at the other facilities.
One major symptom of COVID-19 is difficulty breathing, so patients with severe cases often need a ventilator to help them recover.
Ventilators are machines that push air in and out of a person's lungs if the person can't breathe on his or her own.
Seward Memorial Hospital has five machines it can use as ventilators, Reamer said, but one of those is connected to an anesthesia machine used for surgeries.
Staff must be specially trained to operate the ventilators, and not all staff are. Prolonged use of the machines would require trained staff to work 12-hour shifts, which isn't ideal.
“We can manage them for awhile, but then we're going to have to get them (patients) off to Bryan or St. E's,” Reamer said.
What about testing?
While the ventilator situation hasn't become an issue locally—there haven't been any cases in Seward County—Reamer said a lack of available COVID-19 tests is problematic.
“Testing is by far the thing that is most frustrating to us and the physicians. We need people to understand they're not going to get a COVID test,” he said.
Doctors are now diagnosing cases of COVID-19 as “presumptive positive,” without confirming it with a lab test because there aren't enough tests to go around.
Even if there were, Nebraska laboratories are only able to process 1,000 tests per day, so patients who do get tested could have to wait days before getting results.
Presumed positive diagnoses are only given if a patient first tests negative for influenza and a slate of other viruses that cause common colds.
Presumed positive cases are not included in the state total of confirmed cases, and many who receive the diagnosis are instructed to go home and self-quarantine away from others for at least 14 days. If their symptoms are severe, they're admitted to a hospital.
Reamer said people who need care or have questions about a condition, COVID or not, should call the clinic first and utilize the Memorial EZ Visit on the hospital's website, www.mhcs.us. This will help with social distancing and keep people out of waiting rooms and other areas where they're more likely to infect others.
Anyone who needs a follow-up visit from a previous appointment can contact the clinic at (402) 643-4800 to begin a thread of text communication with a provider or set up an EZ Visit.
Reamer said the EZ Visit screening tool has seen 600 uses in recent weeks, a number much higher than normal.
He also thanked the community for its support during the pandemic while hospitals are gearing up for what could become a more complicated situation.
“Our staff really appreciates the thank yous for what we’re doing and what we’re planning to do” Reamer said.
Local contact information:
Memorial Hospital: (402) 643-2971
Milford Family Medical Center: (402) 761-3307
Seward Family Medical Center: (402) 643-4800
Utica Family Medical Center: (402) 534-2081
Seward Family Pharmacy: (402) 646-4607