Phlebotomists and clerical workers helped in the Emergency Department. Maintenance workers and IT specialists concentrated on setting up testing sites. Nurses asked to be sent wherever needed. When the COVID-19 pandemic spread through the Susquehanna Valley, area hospital staffers worked together to fight it.

“It’s certainly not something I have ever seen before,” said Andrew Zechman, Mobile Medical Unit coordinator at Evangelical Community Hospital, talking about the pandemic. “We all pulled together and got through it.”

Zechman was hired to coordinate routes and scheduling of Evangelical’s Mobile Medical Unit, but when that was chosen as the base for the hospital’s coronavirus testing site, he was thrust into 12-hour days, seven days a week to coordinate what has amounted to a whole new department.

“The testing site is important not only for ease of access for the patient but also to limit the exposure of patients in the hospital to COVID+ patients,” he said, “and to limit staff exposure too.”

Heather Stafford, clinical director of Infectious Diseases at UPMC in the Susquehanna Region, oversaw the setup of testing sites, including one at UPMC Williamsport. Like Zechman, she went through a mind-boggling checklist of steps needed to create fully functioning sites within days.

“The hardest part was identifying a good location,” she said.

UPMC Williamsport landed on a versatile spot in a building across the street from the hospital. Evangelical has been using a drive-through parking lot space across the street from their hospital but moved this Monday to a former truck terminal with drive-through access on the corner of St. Mary and 15th Streets, in Lewisburg. Both hospitals offer contact-free service (except for the actual test), with UPMC patients phoning for a staff member to come out and open the door for them, while Evangelical’s drive-through site allows patients to remain in their car.

What does it take to create a virus testing site in as short a time as possible? Lots of help from lots of people.

“We needed phone lines and computers, so our IT team was a really important partner in setting up that,” Stafford said, also praising UPMC’s maintenance team for building swabbing stations and privacy cubicles and installing extra sinks. “This really was all hands on deck.”

Zechman also praised Evangelical’s IT and plant engineering departments for the technology and maintenance work they did, including connecting phones and computers and setting up cones to direct patients in their vehicles.

“We moved the mobile unit here on a Wednesday in March,” he said. “We were fully operational by 7 a.m. the next morning. It was really an amazing team effort.”

Staffing the sites was made easier by an ironic twist. With social distancing shutdowns closing or reducing elective health services, some employees were more than happy to help in COVID testing.

“From the beginning, the EMSO (Evangelical Medical Services Organization) has done an amazing job,” Zechman said, noting the testing site received help from LPNs, medical assistants, medical office assistants and PAs, radiology technicians, physical therapists, lab workers and phlebotomists. “We had some primary doctors help out, as well. And some prehospital services and EMTs also stepped up. They are doing roles they weren’t used to. They just stepped up and took it on to keep this thing rolling.”

Plant engineering workers pitched in with welcoming patients to the site and recording basic demographic information. The workers also come in handy when an occasional car needs a battery charge or other mechanical aid.

Stafford said lab workers, pharmacists, staffers from outpatient and inpatient departments and others offered to work at the testing sites.

“We really did tap into all of our healthcare resources and created a shared schedule where we could have people sign up and be trained to be swabbers,” she said. “They definitely pulled together.”

“Overall, it really has been a humbling experience,” Zechman said. “I’ve been a member of some great teams, but this has been a unique experience.”

When departments returned to more full-time hours again, staffing challenges at the test sites returned. Proving the sites really are independent departments, they’ve had to hire their own workers.

“I’m actually proud to say we just filled two full-time positions that will be coming on board in November that will be dedicated to the collection site,” Stafford said.

“We have two individuals here most of the time,” Zechman said. “They have been absolute rock stars since we opened.”

Working in a hospital during a global pandemic is bound to tax a person’s emotional stamina. Recognizing this, hospital administration and even some community members have reached out. Calling UPMC’s marketing team “geniuses,” Stafford credited them with helping her share messages with employees, even when information on the novel virus was updated and changed with bewildering speed.

“We set up a COVID command center and all department heads were invited to those meetings so everyone was getting the same information at the same time,” she said. “I really think our staff were troopers. We created a COVID unit specifically in our hospitals. Our staff are proud to work in that unit. They have voiced that they feel very safe here.”

Equipping staff with proper personal protective equipment has resulted in the hospital having no COVID outbreaks among employees.

“We have very good cleaning practices and wipe down our high-touch surfaces all the time,” Stafford said. “I’m just really proud of the team. It’s been a very positive thing to pull the staff together here.”

“I think one of the things I’m most proud of is that everybody has been following our infectious prevention protocol,” Zechman said of Evangelical’s testing site. “Since March, no staff members that work here have tested positive.”

In fact, the Pennsylvania Department of Health visited Evangelical’s mobile test site to see how they run it.

“After that, they opened their own mobile site,” Zechman said. “It was pretty cool that they came to see how we were doing it.”

The testing sites can identify asymptomatic patients who might unknowingly infect others. It also offers two paths of care to keep COVID+ patients and routine patients from interacting.

“The most important thing is to keep the patients and the staff safe,” Zechman said, “while offering an important service to the community.”

Cindy O. Herman lives in Snyder County. Email comments to her at CindyOHerman@gmail.com

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