Hospital, State give update on COVID-19 preparations

A screener, Nate Bartell, at the entrance of Newton Medical Center, left, talks to someone wanting to enter the hospital. He is one of seven screeners. Bartell said he's an athletic trainer at NMC, and since there are no sports nor school, he now has some way to help out. People entering the hospital initially have to step back about 6 feet from the screener. Wendy Nugent/Newton Now

Newton Medical Center is taking actions to prepare for a possible COVID-19 surge.
Locally, Communications Director Shelly Conrady, Chief Clinical Officer Heather Porter, and Incident Command Safety & Liason Officer Emily Newhouse gave an update on the on the hospital’s actions Wednesday afternoon.

Porter said the hospital is working to cross train staff members on acute care and caring for people with COVID-19.

The hospital is also putting up zip walls or plastic barriers in hallways to create blocks of rooms with negative pressure. Negative pressure in rooms means air, possibly carrying the virus is unable to escape and circulate.
“We have the capability to do that in other hallways, if needs be,” Porter said.

Both moves would increase the number of COVID-19 patients the 103-bed hospital would be able to treat.

Staff gave no answer on how many patients the hospital would be able to handle nor what capacity it could expand to treat.
“We’re going to start with the capacity we have, and we’re going to build on that as the need arises,” Conrady said. “We’re committed to caring for the COVID patient as well as the community’s patients. We’re taking all the steps necessary to be able to treat these patients.”
The hospital is taking other actions to free up staff and keep people safe. Surgeons are evaluating which elective surgeries need to be postponed.
Hallways are closed to limit traffic, waiting areas are being adjusted to avoid viral spread, and visitors are being screened upon entry at the hospital. The hospital is also accumulating personal protective equipment and adding IV extensions.

Porter said the hospital has been preparing for the virus to hit the area for some time.
“We moved into incident command close to 60 days ago at Feb. 1,” she said, adding that the hospital is also working with other community organizations.
“This is a community collaborative effort,” she said. “We’re working with public health. We have weekly debriefings at different stake holders. We visit with Toby [Harkins, Harvey County Public Health Department] at least twice a week.”
The planning that has been taking place has involved looking at how the hospital can serve the entire community.

Porter said in the case of a large scale outbreak, relying on regional partners in Wichita could be difficult, as they will likely also be dealing with patient surges.

A Harvard Global Health Initiative projection showed the Greater Wichita Area could need three times the amount of critical care beds, should a moderate spread of the infection (40 percent of the population) occur over a 12-month period.

The hospital update comes on the same day that Kansas Health Commissioner Lee Norman called on people to take the virus seriously, noting that he anticipated the number of cases to grow rapidly in Kansas. He called on Kansans to stay home and stay away from each other.
“We’re grownups. We have the ability to make decisions. We have the ability to do this. It’s not a game to make exceptions,” he said at the press conference.

He said the number of exceptions in shelter-in-place orders in some counties were too broad and people also looked for exceptions to avoid following the orders.
“If you must go out for essential tasks, observe those social distancing rules,” he said. “These aren’t just made up; they’re proven to be effective.

The state has 126 confirmed infections and three deaths. Norman said he expected that number of confirmed cases to be closer to 400 by March 31.

Harvey County has not had a confirmed case, though neighboring Sedgwick has 11, Butler, 3, and Reno, 2. Sedgwick County issued a shelter-in-place order that went into effect today.

Norman said the state continues to run short of testing materials from the federal government. The state has the capacity to complete 900 tests per day. It’s currently doing about 150. He said commercial lab tests are available to offset the state’s shortages.

He also said he continues to argue for state access to protective equipment and Kansas has every right to it as bigger states do.

Compared to New York on a per capita basis, we’re much lower, but compared to a California basis, we’re about where California is [per capita],” he said.

He said the state is short on masks, but it’s looking to get UV light devices to help sterilize masks to be reused multiple times.
The state is also looking at what it can do to handle a need for more hospital capacity. He said the state is looking at help from the Army Corps of Engineers to convert empty or unused medical facilities into hospitals. The state is also looking at a way to move Veterans Administration patients at the three state hospitals into a singular facility to possibly use the other two facilities for treating COVID-19 patients.
He said using existing facilities was far easier then establishing a M.A.S.H. (mobile Army surgical hospital) unit.

He said his team is counting the number of ventilators and equipment available and considering ideas like using CPAP machines as makeshift ventilators, should the need arise.
Nationally, the virus continues to spread. The United States has passed 50,000 confirmed infections.

Field hospitals are under construction in New York as hospitals become overwhelmed and stretched. Other countries, such as Italy, have had to have doctors decide which patients to provide care for and which patients not to as the country’s healthcare system buckled under the surge of patients needing critical treatment.

Conrady said the hospital was working to be as prepared as possible to minimize any issues Newton faced.
“We hope we do not have to play that out,” she said. “We hope to have preparations where we don’t have issues in the community.”

Porter said the effect the disease has had on other healthcare systems makes it necessary for people to help do their part to avoid such events.

Social isolation is vital for flattening the curve,” she said. “What that will allow for is health systems to be able to care for the patients without the strain of being over capacity. It allows the health system to meet the need of patients.”