Valley health officials should be better equipped to handle a surge of new virus cases this fall that prompted temporary banning of nearly all visitors at Geisinger Health System hospitals, effective Monday.

Since the onset of the pandemic in March, the medical community has learned plenty, said Dr. Gerald Maloney, chief medical officer for Geisinger hospitals.

Among the lessons he and his colleagues have learned is that wearing a mask is effective in curbing the spread of the virus and that exposure of 15 minutes or more during a 24-hour period with an infected person puts an individual at risk.

“Prevention does work. If I can’t breathe in what you breathe out, we’re safe,” Maloney said.

There’s greater knowledge now about vulnerable patient populations, such as the elderly and African Americans. Treatment methods and options have evolved, too, said Kendra Aucker, Evangelical Community Hospital president and CEO. She pointed to the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval last week of the antiviral drug Veklury (remdesivir), the first such treatment to receive FDA approval.

Maloney said the new best practices for caring for COVID-19 patients has decreased the number of deaths.

And while they are better prepared, the virus continues to rage.

“The number of people walking around infected is more than in the spring,” he said.

Geisinger officials are also discussing whether restrictions will be implemented in the emergency rooms, said Dr. J. Edward Hartle, executive vice president and chief medical officer at Geisinger.

“These restrictions are not taken lightly,” he said. “We felt it was what we needed to do to provide safe care and to protect our patients, staff and the community.”

“The pandemic is taking a toll on health care workers and facilities, particularly at the three largest Geisinger hospitals where there is a 90-percent occupancy rate,” Maloney said.

Visitor restrictions haven’t been heightened this fall at Evangelical Community Hospital in Lewisburg where patients are still afforded the company of two companions.

Peak patient population of COVID-19 patients at Evangelical over the past few weeks has been about 12 at any one time, said Aucker. Should that figure become the average rather than the high, she said stricter visitation restrictions would be implemented. Another thing known now which has really been reinforced since March, Aucker said, is emphasizing hand hygiene, social distancing and masking all work to mitigate the spread of the respiratory disease. Yes, she said, masks work.

Visitors to the hospital and its clinics are met with standard protocol. They’re asked about potential symptoms or exposure. They’re temperatures are taken and, if necessary, they’re recommended for testing. Masks are standard.

“What we’ve learned from March is that we now know how to screen,” Aucker said.

She understands the public’s fatigue with the restrictions caused by the pandemic but echoes other health care professionals.

“We’re all tired of this and yet, the data shows masking works. The people who say to me ‘this will all be over next week,’” Aucker said, alluding to the general election before adding, “This is not going to go away next week no matter the outcome.”

Maloney is also concerned that the public is getting tired of wearing masks and social distancing, making it more difficult for the medical community to respond and putting health care workers at higher risk.

“I see people flirting with disaster,” he said. “People are letting their guard down, especially with people they know.”

“Victory will be gradual. We probably will be wearing masks well into a year from now,” he said.

The temporary visitation restrictions at Geisinger facilities is being implemented as the number of patients testing positive for COVID-19 has risen by about 15 a day in August to now about 80 a day, said Hartle.

On Tuesday, a total of 70 patients were being treated at Geisinger’s hospitals and 15 patients were in the intensive care unit, he said.

There will be special exceptions, but most patients will be encouraged to stay in contact with family and friends through phone calls, Facetime or Skype. Geisinger provides iPads to family members to help make communication easier.

With the increase in COVID-19 cases coinciding with flu season, medical experts are worried. Geisinger mandated all of its employees receive a flu shot.

“You could have someone who has a combined infection of the flu and COVID. From a practical standpoint it may be indistinguishable,” requiring medical professionals to isolate and test patients for both. “It complicates the process in what we have to do,” said Hartle of the increased risk it poses to staff and the need for more PPEs.

In March, patient services at Valley hospitals were broadly closed and appointments postponed, especially non-emergent surgeries.

Evangelical shifted surgical cases to its outpatient center to maintain more appointments in the event the hospital experiences a surge in COVID-positive patients and access to the building is restricted, Aucker said.

With winter approaching, Evangelical will move its alternative testing site beginning Monday to 1499 St. Mary St., Lewisburg. The new site allows for a more fixed location compared to the current temporary site at the shopping plaza just north of the hospital.

While Geisinger and Evangelical officials said they have an adequate supply of PPEs, Aucker said rapid testing supplies are needed to more quickly diagnose patients.

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