For area hospitals, the spread of COVID-19 ushered in a period of rapid change.
Government orders forced medical facilities to halt elective procedures for more than a month, allowing health professionals to intensify preparations for the pandemic.
In recent weeks, however, such restrictions have been eased. Gov. Kim Reynolds permitted hospitals to begin offering some elective procedures in the final week of April, an allowance that most medical organizations have approached with caution.
Generally speaking, elective procedures are those that are scheduled in advance, as opposed to those that occur in direct response to an immediate medical emergency.
Local medical leaders are now tasked with slowly bringing back some elective surgeries, all while the continued presence of COVID-19 looms large.
Bryan Pechous, vice president of medical affairs at UnityPoint Health-Dubuque, noted that multiple factors were considered as the organization attempted to bring back certain procedures.
“We decided that safety was the top issue in dealing with this pandemic, for our patients, our families and the members of our staff,” he said. “We looked at a list of procedures that needed to get done and weighed that against the resources required to perform them safely. Now we have started the journey of moving through that list.”
UnityPoint Health-Finley Hospital resumed elective procedures on Monday. Minor orthopedic and cataracts procedures have been among the first to return, largely because they do not require general anesthesia or significantly exhaust hospital resources.
Such considerations are paramount as hospitals face the realization that COVID-19 continues to pose a major threat.
Dubuque County now has 249 confirmed cases of novel coronavirus, with 46 of those coming in the past three days alone. As retail stores and restaurants resume operations, many experts feel the spread of the virus will intensify.
On May 6, Southwest Health in Platteville, Wis., began a slow “phase-in” of elective procedures after an extended period of focusing solely on emergency care.
Spokeswoman Jaime Collins said officials are ensuring that these services are first provided to “those who need them the most.” She also emphasized the importance of taking a measured approach to reopening elective procedures, noting that safety must be prioritized.
“There is an element of concern in our community,” she said. “There are people wondering, ‘Is the hospital a safe place to go?’ We want to assure people that it is, in fact, one of the safest places to go.”
Southwest Health is making sure that those who visit the hospital for elective surgeries can be seen upon arrival, thereby limiting time and exposure in waiting rooms.
At Grant Regional Health Center, located in Lancaster, Wis., multiple steps are being taken to ensure safety. Such requirements include “visitor restrictions, symptom screening at the entrances, masking and social distancing while in the facility.”
At Guttenberg Municipal Hospital & Clinics, officials are conducting “extra cleaning and disinfecting,” according to a press release. If one screens positive for COVID-19, that person is asked to go back to his or her car for “further instructions.”
MercyOne Dubuque Medical Center also is aiming to strike the proper balance as it brings back new services.
The facility began offering some outpatient elective surgeries on Monday and will begin phasing in other elective procedures and treatments beginning May 18.
“MercyOne Dubuque is enhancing safety precautions already in place in order to resume surgeries, procedures and other services that our patients and communities need,” Kay Takes, president of MercyOne Eastern Iowa, said in a prepared statement. “We are taking a thoughtful, collaborative and phased approach to resuming services, following CDC and state COVID-19 guidance to ensure the safety of our patients, colleagues and providers.”
At many local medical facilities, officials are attempting to strike a balance between meeting the backlogged demand for services and maintaining an enhanced level of safety.
At Jackson County Regional Health Center in Maquoketa, officials are cognizant of weighing both factors.
“We have asked surgeons to not have the full volume as they start back up,” said chief nursing officer Jean Hayes. “We are at about 50% (of typical volume) at this point.”
Pechous, of UnityPoint Health, acknowledged that addressing the backlog of procedures could be difficult: He said the top priority is to help those with the most urgent needs; after that, officials can begin to reschedule the appointments canceled due to COVID-19.
Noting that there is high demand, Hayes said officials are aiming to ramp up such procedures on a week-to-week basis until they are conducting as many surgeries as they did prior to the pandemic.
“Our hope is that by mid-June or the end of June we’re at that point where we are back to 100%,” she said.
JOBS COMING BACK
As COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on the local economy, the health care industry has been among the sectors hit hardest.
Numbers obtained by Greater Dubuque Development Corp. indicate that more than 2,000 Dubuque County workers in the “health care and social assistance” category have filed new unemployment claims since mid-March.
The resumption of elective procedures has marked the beginning of a return to normalcy for some workers.
“There have certainly been some changes in personnel,” acknowledged Pechous, of UnityPoint Health. “We are re-evaluating on a daily basis what our needs are and what the needs of the community are. More of our team members are pitching in to help us, and we’re bringing them back as we need them.”
Collins, at Southwest Health, has observed a similar phenomenon.
“In past weeks, there were an abundance of empty spaces in the staff parking lot,” she said. “With each passing day, we are bringing more folks back. We’ll have to increase staff as we see an increase in patients and return to something that people would consider normal.”