Columbus Regional Healthcare System on Thursday announced that it was preparing for a post-holiday surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations by increasing its patient capacity by repurposing some of its hospital rooms.
“This organization has proactively been doing things since March that have always kept us a little ahead of the curve,” said John Young, chief executive officer.
In an interview with The News Reporter Thursday, hospital administrators said CRHS was planning to bring unused, licensed beds into service. With the beds on the fourth and fifth floors, which have recently been used for dialysis and pediatrics, the hospital will be able to provide beds for 100 people with a 50% increase in CCU capacity, according to Jason Beck, chief operating officer.
“We feel confident that we’ve got a surge plan to continue to meet the needs of this community,” Beck said. “We’re going to be proactive, not reactive.”
CRHS decided to move forward with this contingency plan once Thanksgiving brought a record-high number of hospitalizations to the county. During the summer, it had an average of six to eight COVID-19 patients, and by October that number had increased to 10-12, according to Beck.
On Jan. 5, the hospital had 29 COVID-19 patients.
“We’re seeing the highest numbers we’ve seen to date,” Beck said.
Sam Wheatley, the chief medical officer and also the first person in Columbus County to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, warned that the number of hospitalizations was only going to get worse due to the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. “The toothpaste is out of the tube,” he said, referencing the holiday gatherings. “You can’t put it back in; that’s already done.”
Beck added that CRHS predicted this surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations at the beginning of the pandemic. “We’ve taken advantage of the time we’ve had to prepare for this moment,” he said. “I don’t think we could prepare any more than what we’ve planned.”
One key aspect to this planning was the hospital’s decision to keep all of its employees in March, which many other hospitals were unable to do due to financial constraints, according to CEO Young. “We were well served early on not to furlough, so we didn’t have to replace people we let go,” he said.
This has enabled the hospital to continue elective surgeries and address cancer, heart attacks and trauma injuries. “The ability to really take care of these COVID-19 patients lets you really keep your ability to take care of everybody else too,” Wheatley said. “It’s a continuum of care.”
In addition, CRHS is actively recruiting more staff to help take care of the COVID-19 patient influx. More than 20 nurses will join the hospital this month, according to Terri Veneziano, the vice president of nursing.
At the beginning of the pandemic, CRHS began training all nurses in critical care to allow more staff members to handle severe COVID-19 cases. “I think that’s served us well because the staff is now more comfortable,” Veneziano said.
Young emphasized that the biggest challenge the hospital is currently facing is keeping staff on the job, as they too can contract COVID-19. “Our focus to date has been to get our caregivers covered first,” he said, referencing the distribution of personal protective equipment and the vaccine.
With 600 doses of the Moderna vaccine, CRHS is still in Phase 1A of distribution, administering the vaccine to healthcare workers who have direct contact to COVID-19 patients.
Wheatley reiterated the importance of protecting those workers. “A hospital with no nurses is like a car with no wheels,” he said.
Wheatley added that CRHS was being careful about preserving second doses for those healthcare workers but was sympathetic to the Columbus County Health Department being overrun with calls to schedule appointments for people over the age of 75. “When we get [Phase] 1A done, we’ll be right there helping them with [Phase] 1B,” he said.
While Wheatley was hopeful due to the existence of a COVID-19 vaccine, he did warn that the pandemic was far from over. “The vaccine is the end of the beginning,” he said. “Vaccinating the public is the beginning of the end.”