Area Hospitals See Patients Return for Appointments, Surgeries
AHN Saint Vincent and UPMC Hamot and Millcreek Community Hospital able to resume preventative and elective procedures as county prepares to enter Yellow Phase
Western Pennsylvania — and Northwestern Pennsylvania in particular — have been fortunate in not experiencing the same wrath of the COVID-19 pandemic as our eastern counterparts have. With Erie County being one of the 24 "Yellow Phase" counties authorized by the state to cautiously and gradually reopen Friday, our two biggest hospitals have begun to restore their full range of services.
UPMC Hamot, AHN Saint Vincent, and LECOM Health's Millcreek Community Hospital are resuming preventative and elective procedures, including colonoscopies, minor surgeries, blood tests, and cancer screenings after the Pennsylvania Department of Health announced that facilities with broad testing capabilities, safety protocols, and contingency plans in place could extend operations beyond "essential care only." Officials of both healthcare systems have been energized by the news, eager not only to serve their patients, but also learn more about the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV2) under less dire conditions.
"We appreciate this step and think it's the right thing to restore care with appropriate testing and with safeguards," said Donald Yealy, MD, chair of emergency medicine at UPMC and the University of Pittsburgh. He added that the UPMC system has already made headway in addressing the backlog of "postponed but medically necessary care," including preventative and elective surgeries that were down 70 percent prior to COVID-19.
Sri Chalikonda, MD, AHN's chief medical operations officer, echoed Yealy's gratitude while expressing gratitude to the community. "Because of safety measures and social-distancing requirements put in place by the state and county health departments, Western Pennsylvania didn't have as many COVID-19 cases as the rest of the state. As a result, it appears we have flattened the curve regionally, and at this point we are confident that we can safely resume clinical appointments and elective surgeries."
As far as how they are doing that, Dr. Yealy's emphasis was on universal testing, whether a patient be symptomatic or asymptomatic. UPMC is particularly invested in developing reliable antibody testing — scanning for the protein markers the immune system creates to respond to known infections. Executed properly, these tests would reveal two things: 1) Have I been exposed to the virus? and 2) Am I immune? Dr. Yealy cited studies in New York and California that indicated the presence of antibodies in 5 to 20 percent of the asymptomatic population — in other words, it's likely that many more people have been exposed to the disease than know they have it.
Furthermore, UPMC will adapt a targeted approach to protecting vulnerable senior populations, exploring implementation of novel treatments suggested by the international REMAP-CAP trials and the use of convalescent plasma, or blood donated by COVID-19 survivors containing the antibodies.
AHN will likewise be thorough in observing every patient for COVID-19 symptoms and risk factors, testing those who fail the initial screening. Surgical patients will be tested regardless of symptoms if a positive result would complicate the surgery. Meanwhile, its facilities such as Saint Vincent will strictly adhere to social distancing and sanitation best practices, including:
- Extended office hours and staggered shifts
- Separate entrances and treatment areas for COVID-19 patients (with specialized personnel for those patients)
- Rearranged waiting rooms
- Sneeze guards in reception areas, etc.
- Rigorous cleaning and sanitation every two hours minimum
- Pre-screening to get patients in and out quickly
- Personal protective equipment in use at all times
- Continued visitation restrictions.
Patient anxieties over COVID-19 infection will likely continue to linger for a good while, but the extreme precautions being adopted should provide assurance that anyone needing to schedule an appointment, see a specialist, or address a healthcare emergency can do so safely and without worry.
Matt Swanseger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org