The message from area hospitals is simple, and one you’ve heard for months: wear a mask, social distance, wash your hands. And avoid large gatherings.
With COVID-19 hospitalizations at high levels locally and statewide, leaders and staff at CHI Health Mercy and Methodist Jennie Edmundson in Council Bluffs asked the public to do its part to protect not only hospital staff but the community at large.
“We’re very grateful for the hard work of our health care workforce. We’ve very proud of all the work they are putting in to manage this pandemic. We’re asking for help from our community,” Jennie Edmundson President and CEO Steve Baumert said. “Our staffs are part of this community. Their kids go to school, their spouses go to work. We’re asking the community not just to say we value health care workers, but to mean it. Protect them by wearing masks, socially distancing, avoiding large gatherings — follow the governor’s guidelines.
“We’re asking the community not just to say we value health care workers, but to mean it.”
The latest round of COVID-19 mitigation guidelines from Gov. Kim Reynolds include a prohibition of indoor gatherings of more than 15 people and outdoors gatherings of more than 30 people, along with the requirement that people wear a mask while indoors in public if near others for more than 15 minutes. The proclamation also instructs hospitals to reduce non-urgent and elective procedures.
The new guidelines came as the novel coronavirus surges throughout the state and locally. Statewide hospitalizations have risen from around 700 on Nov. 1 to a high-water mark of 1,527 on Nov. 18 before a slight decrease the past few days. The state’s 14-day positivity rate has been above 20% throughout the month, while the seven-day positivity rate, tracked by Johns Hopkins University, was at 50% or higher for a full week before a slight dip in recent days.
Pottawattamie County’s 14-day positivity rate has been at 20% or higher since Nov. 11, while the state has confirmed 19 COVID-19 deaths in the county in November. On Nov. 9 the Council Bluffs hospitals had 37 COVID-19 patients, then the highest of the pandemic, and has hovered around that number or higher since, according to Pottawattamie County Public Health. There were 43 on Saturday.
“People are scared when they find out they have COVID. This is an unknown virus,” Baumert said. “Our nurses could be caring for a neighbor, someone they go to church with. This is real to them. They’re fighting for the lives of our community members. We’re asking the community to fight with us.”
Both Baumert and Ann Schumacher, president of Mercy Council Bluffs, said that while hospital beds availability is decreasing, the biggest strain is continuing to provide adequate staffing.
“Hospitalization rates are at record highs — inpatient, ICU, ER. Every day is going up from the previous day and previous week,” Schumacher said. “We have an adequate number of beds. The pressure point is staffing.”
The hospitals have filled those gaps through a variety of actions, including shifting staff to assist COVID-19 patients, training non-nurses to work screening stations to free up additional nurses and enlisting traveling nurses — it’s been an “all hands on deck” approach, Schumacher said. Both facilities are also part of larger health systems, which has provided flexibility and resources.
“We have been caring for COVID-19 patients since the pandemic began. We are entering our eighth month. I don’t think any of us thought we would still be in this battle,” said Kyle Kreger, critical care unit director at Jennie Edmundson. “I’ve been so proud of our care teams and how everyone has worked tirelessly to care for the patients fighting this virus. We certainly aren’t winning every battle and that’s the hardest part. We see a lot of survivors walk out of our hospital, which we celebrate, but we also feel the pain for those that don’t.”
Since the pandemic began, both hospitals have worked together, sharing information on what works and what doesn’t in caring for coronavirus patients. Treatment has advanced since March.
Schumacher noted high doses of oxygen, steroids and antiviral drugs have proven effective so far. Baumert noted something as simple as the positioning of patients, prone vs. supine, has made a difference.
“We’re constantly evolving with the science,” she said. “What helps these patients do well to walk out of the hospital.”
“As care shifts, everyone’s aware of it. This is a working-together process,” Baumert said.
Jennie Edmundson announced Friday it would also begin using bamlanivimab, an antibody drug shown to reduce hospitalizations in COVID-19 patients.
But those are treatments once a person makes it to the hospital. Staff at both hospitals, along with Schumacher and Baumert, stressed the need for a renewed focus on prevention methods.
“This pandemic has changed the role of health care workers completely. We need understanding, we need support, we need empathy and a better understanding that it is going to take everyone’s teamwork to get through this,” said Danielle Dougherty, an intensive care nurse at Mercy.
“If I can stress one thing about this virus — wear a mask. Do it for yourself. Do it for others,” Kreger said. “Most importantly do it for the health care workers of our community.”
Mercy nurse Michelle Downing asked that as the holiday season commences, "think about the people you love, think about us. Please stand with us and wear your mask, wash your hands and avoid large gatherings. We know it works.”
Baumert said “if both parties are wearing a mask, it prevents the airborne transmission of particles.”
“This is an airborne virus. The way this transmits is through the air,” Schumacher said. “Through your breathing, your talking. If you can limit the particles you’re transmitting into the air. If you can do that, you’re reducing your risks.”
“It lowers the risk tremendously,” Baumert added. “It’s not a failsafe, but it it lowers the risk tremendously.”
With Thanksgiving days away, the hospital heads expressed gratitude — and talked about how this year, the holidays need to look different to help reduce coronavirus transmission.
“The first message is ‘thank you,’” Schumacher said. “Thank you for standing with us. And collaborating, facing this pandemic head on. Now we need our community to rise to the occasion — make this a Thanksgiving that’s different than others.”
“We may be changing some traditions to stay safe,” Baumert said, “but we can still be very grateful for what we have and we what we’ll have next year after we get through this.”
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