The largest hospital in the area is racing to prepare for an influx of patients as the COVID-19 pandemic makes its way across the state. The Mid-Columbia Medical Center (MCMC) in The Dalles has established a Coronavirus Response Team and has taken steps to prepare for a high number of patients.
So far, no cases have been confirmed in Gilliam, Sherman or Wheeler counties but only three people, one in each county, has been tested so far according to the Oregon Health Authority.
Rates of infection are rapidly rising throughout the state and the disease is considered to be highly contagious. It is just a matter of time until the first case of COVID-19 shows up at the Mid-Columbia Medical Center. All elective surgeries at the hospital have been postponed. No visitors are allowed entry to the hospital. MCMC and area providers are taking extra precautions to both limit the spread of COVID-19 and to maintain a capacity of essential protective equipment.
According to Stephanie Bowen, who serves as the Community Outreach Coordinator at MCMC, the hospital “has a dedicated team of healthcare professionals who are trained to handle patients with infectious diseases, and we are currently taking all appropriate steps to prepare for a potential surge in patients.”
The warning signs have been all over our televisions and media in the past weeks. The spiraling death toll in Italy and high rates of hospitalizations have created a sense of urgency in the U.S. healthcare system.
At MCMC, the Coronavirus Response Team is meeting daily to assess the hospital’s ability to respond to COVID-19 if emergency and intensive care units become inundated with patients. Mrs. Bowen says that the Coronavirus Response Team at MCMC is being proactive and has learned from other hospital systems. Being overly prepared is a good problem.
The Coronavirus Response team is “setting up tents outside of our Emergency Department to be used as triage stations if needed and maintaining regular communication with the local and state public health authorities to ensure we are following all of the latest CDC and OHA guidelines,” said Mrs. Bowen.
Of concern is a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers and ventilators for infected patients. Images from around the country have shown that hospitals are not prepared for the onslaught of COVID-19 patients and hospital workers have been forced to make their own PPE.
This week, veterinarian Carey Wade who owns Wade Veterinarian Services in Condon posted a plea for pet owners to avoid surgeries as all vets were being asked to donate their PPE to hospitals. Unfortunately, MCMC is in a similar situation as other health providers and lacks the necessary protective equipment to meet a wave of infected patients. Mrs. Bowen says that “we have enough supplies for our current flow of patients and are currently working with our local health authorities on receiving additional PPE Equipment.”
The North Central Public Health District (NCPHD), which serves Wasco, Sherman and Gilliam counties, is responsible for providing health centers with the supplies they need. NCPHD reports that the Oregon Health Authority has only given 10% of the items requested for Mid-Columbia Health Center and other healthcare sites in the district.
Similarly, there have been very few COVID-19 testing kits made available to healthcare providers. The South Gilliam Co. Health District in Condon is not conducting tests for COVID-19. Wheeler County Public Health has received a limited number of test kits and is recommending that anyone who shows symptoms remain at home and care for themselves as they would for the flu.
Testing is a crucial part of slowing the disease, according to public health experts. Realizing that there is an urgent need to test more patients, MCMC has begun working with a third-party vendor to provide COVID-19 tests, according to Mrs. Bowen. The Oregon Health Authority announced last week that five additional third-party vendors will be providing tests soon. Quest Diagnostics is providing 20,000 tests for the state of Oregon that are beginning to be made available to public health districts.
“At this time, MCMC is only testing individuals who meet the current Oregon Health Authority screening criteria,” said Mrs. Bowen. OHA says that those who show flu-like symptoms, are over the age of 60 and have an underlying health condition meet this criterion.
Mrs. Bowen says that people who are showing signs of the illness should act quickly. “This is why we are encouraging anyone with concerning symptoms such as cough, fever or shortness of breath to contact their primary care provider”, she said. As more tests are made available, more will be conducted, says Mrs. Bowen but stresses that tests must be ordered by a provider. “The decision to test will be one made between the patient and their care provider if they meet the screening criteria.”
There is potential for COVID-19 to exact a heavy toll on area residents. Frontier counties in Oregon are greying. Residents in Wheeler County are the oldest in the state, with an average age of 59 years, according to U.S. Census data. By comparison, the average age for residents of Multnomah County, the hardest hit by the Coronavirus, is 37. Given the age of residents in the tri-county area, COVID-19 has the potential to make many people sick and to require hospitalizations.
That said, recovery rates from the disease are high. Coupled with the “Stay at Home” order issued by Governor Brown; health officials are hopeful that the disease will spare the residents of frontier Oregon. Be that as it may, MCMC is not trusting to hope and they will rely on their team of professionals and additional support from Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU).
In 2014, MCMC and OHSU forged a partnership to help patients meet their individual healthcare needs. As a leader in research of COVID-19 in Oregon, OHSU will be a crucial partner for Mid-Columbia Medical Center should cases pile up. Should the care that patients require exceed what MCMC can provide, OHSU should emerge as a key player.
Area residents that do fall ill and who face grim prospects will get additional support from OHSU. According to the Mid-Columbia Medical Center, the partnership with OHSU “connects our physicians, staff and community with the vast experience and resources of a state-of-the-art university and medical center.”
Apart from Good Shephard Hospital in Hermiston, Mid-Columbia Medical Center is the only hospital in the area. Residents should feel comforted in that MCMC is not rushing to keep up and that they have been working to prepare for COVID-19.
In the weeks ahead, we will likely see if these measures did indeed make a difference.