COVID-19 is real, it’s spreading through Valley communities and behaviors like refusing to wear a mask and hosting parties risks pushing local hospitals beyond capacity to treat those who fall ill, multiple health care leaders said Thursday.
Confirmed cases, the percentage of positive test results, inpatient hospitalizations, patients needing intensive care treatment — all are rising at Geisinger hospitals and Evangelical Community Hospital, the organization’s top administrators said during an online public forum hosted by the Greater Susquehanna Valley United Way.
Six clinicians and administrators from the Valley implored the public to take the coronavirus pandemic more seriously. Wear a mask. Maintain social distance. Avoid crowded indoor spaces. Limit holiday gatherings to only those living under the same roof.
These simple measures, the health care experts said, are vital for one not only to protect their own health but to protect that of loved ones and strangers alike.
“You cannot live in a bubble thinking it will never affect you. It will,” Kendra Aucker, president and CEO, Evangelical Community Hospital, said.
“How you know something’s real is when multiple people and organizations are fighting the same exact thing,” Dr. Jaewon Ryu, Geisinger's president and CEO, said. “We are now at the point where every hour someone is getting hospitalized at one of the Geisinger facilities with COVID.”
There were 23 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 at Evangelical as of 4 p.m. Thursday, six of whom were in intensive care and several more in the Emergency Department waiting to be admitted. The space needed for treatment of the infectious disease allows for just six ICU beds, though the hospital can accommodate up to 10 COVID-19 patients in intensive care at the moment.
“We are at our max. We’re flexing, we’re adding, but you can only add so many ICU beds and do it safely,” Aucker said.
Geisinger has up to 170 ICU beds throughout its hospital system and availability isn’t as scarce as at Evangelical. However, finding nurses and respiratory therapists to staff the beds is a “big challenge,” Janet Tomcavage, Geisinger’s chief nursing executive, said.
The rate of positive tests for the respiratory disease is climbing at both hospitals as well as at Family Practice Center locations. Evangelical’s current seven-day rate is 18 percent. Geisinger’s is 20 percent. For comparison, the summertime rates at both facilities were as low as about 3 percent.
Benjamin Willard, the chief financial officer for Family Practice Center, said the average is up to 12 percent and rising, reaching 30 percent some days. He expressed worry about the availability of PCR testing supplies commonly used to swab potential COVID-19 patients.
These heightened rates match what occurred in the spring, Ryu said, but the patient load is soaring beyond what was experienced early in the pandemic. He said Geisinger’s daily inpatient population of COVID-19 patients peaked at about 140 in late April.
“We’ve blown past that,” Ryu said. “We’re now up above 180, close to 190 across all regions.”
The region of Montour, Northumberland, Snyder and Union counties is driving the surge at Geisinger, according to data shared by Ryu. Wilkes-Barre, Scranton and Geisinger regions in the west of the Valley all fall below the central/northcentral territory inpatient hospitalizations.
“The virus is spreading,” Aucker said. “It is not true that the numbers are up because there is more testing.”
Dr. Margaret Still, who practices at Geisinger Lewisburg-Community Medicine, emphasized the basics of masking in public, maintaining social distance and being vigilant with hand hygiene. The development of vaccines is promising but the public should expect that distribution will be strategic with frontline medical workers prioritized initially, she added.
There’s no clear-cut answer for parents questioning whether their children should attend school in-person, Ryu said. He encouraged parents to simply consider risks when weighing such concerns.
“We know folks are tired of wearing masks. We really need to stay diligent. If you’re not with your household family, you need to wear a mask,” Tomcavage said.
The health care professionals spoke to an increasing need for mental health and behavioral health services. They acknowledged the mental toll quarantine and self-isolation can have on an individual, from stay-at-home students to the elderly.
That same toll is exacted on clinicians and nurses treating the sick even as staff absenteeism dropped compared to this time last year, D. Lynn Yannes, critical care manager, Evangelical. Because of virus mitigation precautions, including room isolation and restriction on personal visits, hospital staff finds themselves holding the hands of dying patients, Yannes said.
Some people won’t wear masks and aren’t social distancing. They’re hosting parties, visiting friends and casually shopping. That has to stop, Yannes said.
“They’re tired, they are really tired. It is exhausting for them. It is mentally taxing. But they do such a great job,” Yannes said of frontline medical staff. “We really need the public to really take this seriously. It is devastating being in here with these patients and watching them die alone. … We are busting at the seams here. The hospital is doing all it can.”
Aucker said the spread of disbelief among some in the community as to the seriousness of the pandemic is demoralizing to health care professionals. Aucker called on elected officials to back up the medical community and stress to their constituents the need to be cautious and follow standard protocol to mitigate the spread of the virus.
“You need to call people out and have that difficult conversation. Have that conversation with local leaders who are at times telling people to ignore this. We need to challenge our leaders. People need to speak up when they see things that are not accurate,” Aucker said.