LEWISBURG — Kendra Aucker, Evangelical Community Hospital president and CEO, said Monday she was “deeply disturbed” by public comments made about the state’s approach to reopening business amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among the comments were those posted by local sheriffs who declared they would not actively enforce certain restrictions on non-life-sustaining businesses. Aucker called the refusal to uphold the governor’s orders to use face masks and abide by social distancing “irresponsible and dangerous.”
“It emboldens others to flaunt these important infection control protocols and puts the entire community at risk,” Aucker said. “As much as some work to make this a political issue, it is not. It is a public health crisis.
Aucker said while she understood the need to revive the economy, she said a methodical and measured approach was necessary to avoid a sudden spike in cases . The objective was avoidance of a sudden spike in which could overwhelm health care facilities.
“People need to have this in their minds,” Aucker said. “Make no mistake. COVID is in this community and as we test more people we see our positive cases continue to rise. Without continued precautions we are all at risk.”
Aucker said the balance between reopening services and the need for caring for the community was central to their decisions.
“I have to protect the workforce here and I have to protect the public,” Aucker said. “If people get too lax and relaxed about this, we are going to see a spike in this again.”
The statements, were posted on social media by Sheriff Ernie Ritter of Union County and John Zechman, his Snyder County counterpart. Other public officials including Sen. Gene Yaw (R-23) and Rep. David Rowe (R-85) have also been critical.
Elsewhere, Aucker noted during a Monday press call that the ban on construction during the most restrictive phase of the pandemic will delay the opening of the PRIME (Patient Room Improvement, Modernization and Enhancement) project. The ban and supply chain problems have delayed the opening by about four to six weeks. PRIME was to be opened mid-August, Aucker said, but now will not likely to be open until a date in October.
Aucker reassured patients who may hesitate seeking needed care for fear of contracting COVID-19.
“Anyone with symptoms that would be related to COVID symptoms are kept separate from our other patients who have no symptoms,” Aucker said. “We configured our waiting areas and developed patient flow processes that support continued social and physical distancing.”
Masks are still required for patients and employees at all facilities. Visitation is also restricted with a few exceptions, such as a caregiver for a pediatric patient and end of life scenarios.
The hospital’s relatively low incidence of COVID-19 meant that Evangelical was not initially on a list of institutions set to receive a portion of a donation of Remdesivir.
However, Aucker said they were notified that 18 vials of the drug donated by manufacturer Giliead would be coming their way. The quantity, which could treat two COVID-19 patients, was coming via PEMA (Pennsylvania Emergency Management).
Aucker said to date, Evangelical has treated 12 confirmed cases of COVID-19, six have been discharged and four were convalescing.
“A convalescing patient means they have been in the hospital for awhile (and) they no longer test positive for COVID but they are recovering,” Aucker said. “It is a challenging time right now to allow people to go home, depending on their home situation. They might need a home health consultation or they might need a transfer to a nursing home.”
There were no coronavirus patients currently admitted, Aucker noted. More than 50 tests were pending. There have been two deaths attributed to the virus.
There were adequate supplies of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) on hand. Aucker cited an adequate stock before the emergency and collaboration with the North Central Health Care Coalition.
Rachel Smith, vice president of people and culture, said the temporary suspension of certain services required 250 employees to be furloughed on March 22. The pandemic declaration required 270 employees to work remotely.
The peak of furloughs, Smith said, came in late April, and totaled about 400. In the meantime, she said furloughed employees were starting to be recalled and hours have been added for some employees who had seen their work hours reduced. About 118 employees are still furloughed.
Should there be a second surge of COVID cases, Smith said the hospital would remain “nimble.” That would included being able to care for COVID and non-COVID cases. Aucker noted tactics could include shutting down certain surgical procedures again and locking down the facilities.
Aucker noted that antibody testing started last week at the hospital. Testing for antibodies could indicate the degree of resistance to a virus in a given area.