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Hospital able to handle critical care

Hegstrom: Lewistown facility has virus ‘surge plan’ in place

Photo courtesy GEISINGER HEALTH SYSTEM
Geisinger-Lewistown Hospital is experiencing higher volumes of COVID-19 patients but is still equipped to handle the area’s critical care needs, said Dr. Michael Hegstrom, Geisinger general surgeon. He is also optimistic an end to the pandemic is in sight because of the arrival and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines.

LEWISTOWN — Despite growing demand for critical care services at Geisinger-Lewistown Hospital amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and fewer available beds in the intensive care unit, the hospital is equipped to handle the area’s critical care needs, said Geisinger general surgeon Dr. Michael Hegstrom.

Hegstrom explained that while statistics released daily by the Pennsylvania Department of Health on availability of hospital resources are helpful, they are not a true reflection of Geisinger-Lewistown Hospital’s capacity for providing care.

“The numbers that you see reported are based on our normal capacity numbers,” Hegstrom said. “We have been busy and the ICU unit itself has been full, but we have a surge plan in place that we’re able to handle any critical care patient that comes in. The (Geisinger) system also has surge plans if we need help.”

That surge plan, Hegstrom said, includes the conversion of certain areas of the hospital to critical care areas while preserving the ability to transfer patients to other facilities if certain types of specialty care are needed — something that was done even before the pandemic’s onset.

“We’ll handle all the things we can handle medically here, but, anything medically that is out of our realm, we transfer,” he said. “There could be some people who transfer, but we can handle any critical care needs here currently.

“We’ve designated a unit, that we’ve prepared with all the eICU in our hospital that if we have to have more than 10 patients, we’d move them to that unit. We have staffing now that can do that because that really was the rate-limiting step for us is staffing of those beds, but we have units available for people to move there and ICU-level care at different regions of the hospital.”

Hegstrom called the current surge in cases and deaths the worst he’s seen so far during the pandemic. And while Thanksgiving was nearly two months ago, he said the increased number of patients can still likely be attributed at least somewhat to gatherings that happened then.

“This, we think for the most part, is sort of the holidays surge,” he said. “Once people are exposed, they become positive, it takes a couple of weeks after that. Our census has been up for the last three to four weeks. And now we’re at the end of that surge, hopefully, and we won’t see another surge, which, potentially, we’re still keeping an eye on that. We could have a surge from Christmas and New Year’s. We’re in sort of a surge mode now.

“We, hopefully, are seeing the end of the surge from Thanksgiving, early December, but we don’t know 100% yet. We’ll see what happens over the holidays.”

Despite the growing number of patients, there is hope on the horizon — mainly in the form of COVID-19 vaccines. Staff at the Lewistown facility has been receiving shots and recently, the state permitted the first members of the general public to receive vaccines, although for now that’s limited to a few specific groups of people such as long-term care facility residents and those working in medical fields not directly tied to caring for COVID-19 patients.

Hegstrom said Geisinger is eager to begin innoculating the public at-large, but must wait for clearance from the Pennsylvania Department of Health before doing so.

“We’ve had plenty of vaccinations here locally,” he said. “We’re lucky. We’re one of three spots in the Geisinger system that’s getting the vaccinations. So, we have done well vaccinating our staff. Once the DOH and the state opens up more people — it’s not a flip of the switch, we’ve got to create workflows to get it done, we’ve got to create space, we’ve got to create people to give the shots — but as soon as we get the green light, we’re gonna start vaccinating whomever the state gives us the permission to do.”

The projected timeline for vaccine availability seems to vary within the industry, but Hegstrom is hopeful that widespread access will begin within the next few months.

“We’d like to get everyone vaccinated as quick as we can,” Hegstrom said. “But … it’s gonna be a while before everyone can get vaccinated. At the pace of doing this, it’s gonna be late spring, early summer — hopefully closer to late spring. Hopefully by March or April, but that’s just a guess. No one knows 100%.”

Hegstrom also said the administration of vaccines to people who have gotten them has gone pretty well so far, something he hopes to see continue as more people become eligible to receive the shots. He also hopes people will trust the science behind the development of the vaccines, despite it happening in such a relatively-short amount of time.

“I think it’s gone great,” Hegstrom said. “We haven’t had any snafus at all. It’s been a success in every way. … We’ve had access and everything’s gone really smoothly. We hope that continues when we get the OK to vaccinate the community.

“I’m a scientist. I trust the data. The data’s all good. There’s minimal side effects to this. These things have been studied. The phase 3 trials have gone well. I’m getting the vaccine. Once I’m able to, my daughter, my wife and my mother-in-law will all get the vaccine locally here. There’s risk with everything, but the risks with this vaccine are really, really small and the benefits are huge — to open up our society, to protect us.”

He also wanted to praise the job local health care workers have been doing under difficult circumstances.

“I’m so proud of this staff and so amazed at what they’ve been able to do,” Hegstrom said. “The staff at Geisinger-Lewistown Hospital has just been phenomenal. What they’ve had to go through and they’ve just done an amazing job at all levels — from nursing to staff that makes the hospital run, providers, I mean they’ve just all been phenomenal. It just amazes me how well they’ve done. We should be really proud of them in the community.

“Morale’s high and people are doing the job and we’re proud of that.”

LOCAL COVID-19 CASE COUNTS

Mifflin County: 39 new cases Friday, 3,890 total; 2 new deaths Friday, 133 total.

Juniata County: 17 new cases Friday, 1,557 total; 1 new death Friday, 69 total.

Snyder County: 14 new cases Friday, 2,263 total; no new deaths Friday, 55 total.

Huntingdon County: 16 new cases Friday, 3,534 total; no new deaths Friday, 93 total.

Perry County: 37 new cases Friday, 2,150 total; 2 new deaths Friday, 55 total.

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