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Local hospitals prepare for potential COVID-19 surge
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Local hospitals prepare for potential COVID-19 surge

From the Coronavirus update Northeast Iowa series
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WATERLOO – A sturdy tent has been erected outside UnityPoint Health-Allen Hospital to handle a patient influx. Across town at MercyOne Waterloo Medical Center, a specific unit is now earmarked to treat only those infected with the coronavirus.

A referral-only COVID-19 testing center will open this week at MercyOne’s Kimball Ridge site.

At both hospitals, crucial supplies are being preserved and medical staff cross-trained to keep all hands on deck.

While the number of COVID-19 cases in the United States accelerates, overwhelming hospitals in hot spots like New York, Chicago and Boston, local hospitals and health care providers are preparing for worst-case scenarios in the Cedar Valley.

“Our incident command center has been in the process for weeks for all the what-ifs. We are preparing for a surge we hope doesn’t happen,” said Jack Dusenbery, MercyOne CEO.

On Saturday, the Iowa Department of Public Health announced 63 new positive cases of COVID-19 in the state for a total of 298. Three Iowans have died from the virus as of Friday.

A threat on this scale is unprecedented, local health officials said. The COVID-19 pandemic hit hard around the world, and the number of cases and deaths grows by the hour. As of Saturday morning, more than 103,000 cases and 1,668 deaths had been reported across the country, about half of those in New York, according to the New York Times. The U.S. is now the epicenter of the global pandemic, with more reported cases than any country in the world.

“I have been in health care for since 1980 … and I have never seen nor anticipated anything of this magnitude,” said Pam Delagardelle, CEO of UnityPoint Health-Allen Hospital.

Dusenbery concurs.

“This really is a first. There have been other things, but this is just so different. This is a first in my life that people can’t do things — go to a restaurant and can’t get a haircut. The social distancing that’s needed — the fact that you can go to downtown Waterloo and Cedar Falls at night and see a ghost town is unique.”

No one knows when or if the numbers will surge in the Cedar Valley, but Dusenbery, Delagardelle and Cedar Valley Medical Specialists CEO Gil Irey say they’ve taken drastic measures to prepare.

Like MercyOne, Allen has designated a respiratory unit specifically for the treatment of COVID-19 patients. CVMS doctors have privileges at both hospitals and will be sent where they’re most needed, Irey said.

“All of our physicians are on call at the hospitals; every specialty is on call. We will definitely step up and do what’s needed. If the surge does come, the hospitals and the public can rest assured we’ll do what’s needed,” Irey said.

Preparations, concerns

Providers are now seeing patients virtually via telehealth technology to encourage people to stay at home. Staff and those who do show up at the hospitals have their temperatures taken at the door as a precaution.

Surgeries at both hospitals, save for emergency surgeries, have been postponed to preserve supplies like masks, gowns and other protective equipment.

“If I’m scared about anything it is about having all of the supplies,” Delagardelle said. “… We’re needing goggled masks, gowns, face shields, ventilators. Our staff is here, ready to serve. My largest concern is getting the equipment they need.”

Dusenbery echoes that concern.

“If a surge comes like some of these other states, the resources disappear quickly. We’re very concerned about that challenge. I won’t sugarcoat that. That is a major concern,” he said. “There is one hospital in Georgia that communicated its typical six-month supply was utilized in one week. No hospital in Iowa is sitting on a six-month supply.”

Stepping up

Cedar Valley residents have stepped up, donating handmade masks to the hospitals, and several local companies have offered to pitch in.

“I was just on the phone with a very high-level John Deere executive on how they can assist with their 3-D printers,” Dusenbery said. “Can they provide us with face masks from their printers working throughout the weekend. What a team effort in caring about each other.”

Delargardelle said she’s been in contact with local hotels that have offered rooms to hospital staff in the event of a COVID-19 surge, reducing the risk of staff transmitting the virus to their families.

All three CEOs tout the dedication of their staff in a harrowing time.

“Our people really are amazing,” Delagardelle said. “They have remained calm, collaborative and thoroughly professional. They’ve been quick and willing to be cross-trained. … They are accepting of their higher calling,” even in the face of what she calls “pre-traumatic stress syndrome.”

“You know something really big is coming at you. You know it’s headed your way and you know you’re getting prepared, but it’s very unsettling and unnerving,” she said.

Keeping calm

Though it’s important to be prepared, Irey said he remains hopeful the Cedar Valley won’t feel the same crush of COVID-19 experienced in larger cities.

“Calm is what is required, even if there is a surge,” he said. “This is a disease we don’t know a tremendous amount about yet. We’ve got a great, great medical community and we are planning for the worst. We need to remind ourselves that we can’t compare us to New York. We don’t have that population density. We’ve been practicing social distancing because we’re better able to.

“It’s going to be tough, but it’s not going to be anything like New York. I don’t think at the state level we’re going to have anything of that magnitude. Keep washing your hands, don’t touch your face and continue to practice social distancing.”

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