“One piece of good news is that the hospital and clinics won’t be closing. That doesn’t happen in our business,” said Roger Reamer, CEO of Memorial Health Care Systems in Seward, Milford and Utica.
Reamer addressed about 70 people Thursday afternoon, March 12, to answer questions from business owners and others regarding the new strain of coronavirus and what Seward County can expect to happen with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
Reamer said MHCS has already had to follow protocol for dealing with a potential case of COVID-19 on March 11, but so far, everyone in Nebraska who has tested positive for the disease is in quarantine. Only two are hospitalized, and the rest are in self-quarantine at home, without many symptoms.
Those in quarantine so far are family members of others who tested positive for the disease.
Reamer said it’s not cause for major concern until people start hearing about “community spread,” which is when people begin obtaining the virus without being able to track where they got it from.
Reamer said hospital and clinic procedures are changing to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“We’ll be asking the community to do some things differently,” he said.
MHCS is launching a “Call First” campaign, which asks people who think they may be getting sick to call the clinic or hospital first before showing up.
“We’re going to start to screen you a little bit,” he said.
They’ll ask about recent travel and symptoms.
Then, if there’s a possibility a patient has COVID-19 based on initial screening, the patient will be asked to call Four Corners Health Department, which is tracking the spread and trying to gather as much information as possible.
“They will help us make decisions if you should come in or if you should be home in self-quarantine,” he said.
Anyone coming into the facility with a cough may be asked to put on a mask until staff determine what condition they might have.
Here’s the procedure
Those with mild symptoms will likely be told to stay isolated at home, while those with more serious symptoms will be directed to the emergency room—not the clinic.
“We had that yesterday. This young man called in and said, ‘Hey, I think I’ve been in contact with somebody who’s been diagnosed with this virus out in Colorado,” Reamer said.
He didn’t share the man’s eventual diagnosis, but he outlined what happens once a patient comes to the hospital on suspicion of the virus.
First, they go to the emergency room because it’s the place best-equipped to deal with containment.
“Our team is alerted, fully geared. It’s the safest room to use for that,” Reamer said.
A doctor or nurse will swab the patient to test for influenza first.
“We’re still in flu season. We’re going into allergy season. That crap looks just like this crap,” Reamer said.
If the test confirms the flu, the patient is treated for flu and testing stops.
If the test comes back negative for flu, another swab is taken for a series of other viruses the hospital tests for routinely—the types that cause common colds. If it shows a positive result for one of those, the patient will be treated accordingly.
If it’s negative, the hospital will contact Four Corners Health Department, which has to give approval for a COVID-19 test.
“Otherwise, we get overloaded and can’t keep up,” Reamer said, adding that Nebraska labs can only handle 100 COVID-19 tests a day right now.
While a patient is waiting for results, usually overnight, he or she will be instructed to go home and self-quarantine unless symptoms are severe enough for them to be admitted to the hospital.
“If it comes back coronavirus and you’re not real sick, you’re most likely going to stay home,” Reamer said.
Laura McDougall, executive director with Four Corners, said the state and the health department have been following this protocol for the last three or four weeks, but they’ve been tracking the virus since December, when it was discovered in Wuhan, China.
“If we get in that situation where we are seeing a lot of community spread, this might change,” she said.
One person in the audience of business representatives asked if people will be charged for a visit to the emergency room if instructed to go there by the health department.
Reamer said patients will be charged for the ER visit because the hospital is expending resources.
The test for COVID-19 is being covered by insurance companies as preventative care, which often is at no cost to patients.
Again, those charges could change, he said. The hospital also has a financial assistance program available.
“We really don’t want people to have that as a barrier for getting tested,” McDougall said.
The hospital has set up a process to help patients find out if they are at risk for COVID-19. A free, short, online questionnaire can help determine if a patient should seek care. It can be found at https://www.mhcs.us/covid-19-screening.
Depending on how those questions are answered, it could lead to a recommendation for additional evaluation so that a doctor can review symptoms and medical/travel history and recommend the most appropriate care.
Memorial ezVisit is also offering free ezVisits to anyone who has COVID-19 symptoms (fever, cough, shortness of breath) or anyone who has been in contact with an individual diagnosed with COVID-19. Patients can use the code COVID19 (in the payment section) only if diagnosed with an upper respiratory health issue to waive the regular $39 fee. This code does not apply to other conditions including UTI, pink eye and others.
Reamer said MHCS is meeting three times a week with Four Corners and the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services to stay up-to-date on the virus and help share accurate information and best practices.