Hospital ready for virus
But concerns raised if surge is overwhelming
BENNINGTON- Southwestern Vermont Health Care CEO Tom Dee and chief medical officer Trey Dobson, MD, gave Vermonters in the region an overview of the health care network’s preparations for the COVID-19 pandemic in southern Vermont.
Dobson said the hospital is prepared to handle the crisis, but he said there is still concern that a surge in the number of cases could overwhelm the system. Dobson said the hospital is preparing for an increase in capacity of up to 300%. “If it happens slowly, we’ll be able to absorb it,” he said. “If it comes all at once, we’ll be in some trouble. But we’re ready and we’re prepared.”
As of Tuesday, Dobson said, the hospital has seen 10 people who have tested positive for COVID-19 (coronavirus). “Half of those were hospitalized, and only two remain in the hospital now. But knowing that’s just the number who have tested positive, we know there are many people in the community who have COVID-19 with mild symptoms and have never been tested. For every one that has tested positive, there are at least five that have had the virus but have had mild symptoms.”
Dobson said healthy people with mild symptoms can react as they would if they had the flu. “Healthy people who have a fever and cough should stay home like you would if you had the flu,” he said. “If you have COVID-like symptoms, you probably have COVID-19 or the flu. Do the same thing – be in quarantine at home for seven days from the time of symptoms. When you haven’t had a fever for the last three days, your isolation is done.”
Dee said the hospital and its satellite offices are taking steps to adjust their operations on a daily basis (see SVMC Deerfield Valley Campus story, page A7). The hospital has limited access to visitors, essentially barring most visitors from entering the building. “Maternity and pediatrics are exceptions,” Dee said.
The hospital is also expanding the number of “negative pressure” rooms from nine to 40. “It’s a major initiative,” Dee said, “and my hat’s off to our facilities people.”
The hospital is also preparing to initiate a “surge plan” that would expand the number of beds available in the hospital. “There’s also a potential for alternatives sites for a surge,” Dee said.
Dobson said the hospital was also creating a “respiratory evaluation center,” essentially an emergency room to screen potential COVID-19 patients. “If you have a broken leg or a heart attack, come to the emergency department. If you’re having a respiratory problem, you’ll come to that area.”
Most people will be sent home from the center to recover at home, Dobson said, but those who need hospital treatment will be admitted immediately. “If you need to be admitted, you’ll be able to bypass the emergency department,” Dobson said.
Dobson and Dee said patients should call before coming to the hospital with COVID-19 symptoms, and some may not need to be seen in person. “If you don’t need to be seen, you can stay at home,” Dobson said. “That’s what we need to have happen. Particularly vulnerable patients who can’t deal with the cough and shortness of breath like others can.”
Dee said SVHC employees have stepped forward to meet the expected challenges. “We’ve been retraining and redeploying employees,” Dee said. “The response from employees has been amazing, non-clinical staff, everyone wants to help. I’m getting calls from the community from people asking how they can help. We’ll get through this by working together.”
Responding to a submitted question, Dobson said there continues to be a limited supply of COVID-19 test kits available. He said the availability of testing would increase in the future but testing at SVMC is limited at this time. “Testing is for those who are very sick or need to be hospitalized, and for health care workers who need to get back in the system when appropriate.”
Another question asked whether people should wear masks or gloves to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Dobson said the best prevention was to wash one’s hands frequently, or use hand sanitizer, which he said was particularly effective with coronavirus.
“We’re trying to keep the supply of masks and gloves for the health care workers who need them,” Dee added. “We’re working with suppliers to increase the supply. Mack Molding (of Bennington) has really stepped up. Their president has been in contact with us trying to work on fabricating masks we can use in the hospital.”
Dee said face masks were the biggest need at the hospital at this time.
Responding to another query, Dobson said Vermonters can maintain their mental and physical health by going outside to get fresh air and exercise.
“Some people have received mixed messages, and think being homebound means being in the home,” he said. “But going for a run or being outside is not going to spread it, and it’s important physically and mentally.”
Another query asked whether take-out food, which is allowed under Gov. Phil Scott’s COVID-19 emergency order, is safe, or whether it’s a possible vector for the virus. “Handling of food is not a known way to spread influenza or coronavirus,” Dobson said. “I believe all those folks are using hand sanitizers. But I wouldn’t worry about that, or the mail. But people do need to be diligent with hand sanitizer.”