As the Valley moves from the red phase to the yellow phase in Gov. Tom Wolf’s color-coded reopening plan, local hospitals have prepared to widen their services as safely as possible.

“The pandemic status is still very much in effect at Evangelical Community Hospital,” said Kendra Aucker, president and CEO. “We are methodically opening services through a phased approach, realizing that at any time, the COVID-19 situation could heat up again, and we need to be prepared for that circumstance. This is a balancing act— we are still seeing and treating COVID-19 patients and caring for both those and non-COVID-19 patients within our walls. We need to continue our response in the safest way possible.”

COVID-19 is a new strain of virus that belongs to the coronavirus family, which also includes SARS and MERS. As concerning as those two were, they did not present as big a threat as COVID-19, said Dr. Rutul Dalal, medical director for Infectious Diseases at UPMC Susquehanna.

“SARS and MERS infections died out pretty quickly relative to this,” Dalal said. “COVID-19 is a very hearty virus. It really packs a punch.”

“I think it’s important to understand the COVID-19 pandemic is not over,” Aucker said, “and we as a Hospital need the community to continue to support spread prevention by social distancing, washing hands, wearing masks, and cleaning frequently used surfaces.”

“We know necessity is the mother of all innovation, and our health system is no different,” said Dr. Gerald Maloney, Geisinger’s chief medical officer for Hospital Services. “Our staff has stepped up to improve processes and find new ways to make health easier for our patients, members and communities despite these extraordinary circumstances.

“One great innovation that came out of this pandemic is the use of telehealth to help make sure our patients are getting the care they need and that they’re not ignoring chronic health concerns that need immediate attention. Our providers can meet with patients by video at home or in one of our clinics to stay on top of their health needs. We are using telemedicine in more than 70 specialties. It’s been a big success in meeting the needs of our patients right where they are as they’re staying safe at home or safely visiting one of our clinics. We are doing about 4,000 of these telehealth visits a day.”

Fortunately, health plans, including Geisinger Health Plan, have stepped up to cover telehealth visits for members, Maloney added. Aucker and Dalal also noted their hospitals’ increasing reliance on telemedicine.

“Among the many lessons learned, we’ve discovered that remote working can be effective, that telemedicine is an important strategy going forward, and that proper and practiced infection control methods need to remain a focus,” Aucker said.

“We’re trying to do telemedicine so people who are at risk with the virus can safely navigate and get to their appointments without physically coming into the hospital,” Dalal said.

While researchers study the likelihood of COVID-19 become a recurring event, hospitals prepare for how to handle it along with other typical seasonal illnesses.

“Healthcare researchers and facilities are looking at COVID-19 as more than a one-time occurrence,” Aucker said. “Much time is being put into coming up with vaccines and treatments on a long-term basis. While not the same as influenza, there is the potential for this to be a seasonally occurring virus. Until a vaccine is available, we will continue to see people presenting with the COVID-19 virus.”

“Come fall, I believe there will definitely be a resurgence,” Dalal said. “And this might continue until we have a reliable vaccine.”

“As we’ve learned more about COVID-19, it’s become clear that it will always be present in our communities and that mitigation through social distancing and other preventive measures while we await a vaccine will be the most important thing we all can do,” Maloney said. “We do know that the possible collision of COVID-19 and seasonal flu does have a potential to be a potent combination. The idea of these viruses colliding is a reminder of how important it is to take all the necessary social distancing and hygiene precautions today that can help us flatten the curve sooner and more effectively.”

With that in mind, flu shots have become even more essential.

“It’s also a reminder of how important it will be to get your flu shot this coming year,” Maloney said. “People who get both the flu and COVID-19 do worse, so we need to do all we can to not get the flu, which means getting the annual flu vaccine. In preparation, we are continuing to enhance our testing capabilities so come the fall COVID-19 testing is readily accessible.” 

Dalal hopes people move forward cautiously while scientists determine how much of a threat the virus will be.

“What I worry about is people just going head over heels and going out and forgetting what we have endured over the last couple of months,” he said.

He mentioned the Spanish Flu of 1918, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control, affected an estimated 500 million people, with at least 50 million deaths worldwide. After social restrictions were relaxed, the virus’s second wave killed more people than the first.

With that in mind, Dalal said social distancing, disinfecting homes and businesses, and testing for the virus will have to be maintained until a vaccine is found to be safe and effective.

Cindy O. Herman lives in Snyder County. Send e-mail comments to her at CindyOHerman@gmail.com.

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