Washington: Providence St. Mary responds to local impact of global pandemic

Letter to the community by by Christopher Hall, MD, Chief Medical Officer, Providence St. Mary Medical Center

In this time of great uncertainty, Providence St. Mary Medical Center would like the community to know how we are preparing and planning to care for patients with symptoms of novel coronavirus (COVID-19). 

At this time, much remains unknown regarding the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). This complicates providing medical care. However, medical colleagues across the globe are sharing their learnings, and we also have the advantage of being part of Providence, which treated the first case of COVID-19 detected in the United States. This has helped tremendously as we prepare to deal with the local impacts of a global pandemic.

In every aspect, it is the time to be prepared, but not to panic. 

We have seen our physicians, nurses and other caregivers perform admirably since the first patient received care at PSMMC several weeks ago. They truly are rising to the occasion to help patients as well as their coworkers.

There are significant challenges. There is a shortage of testing materials, as well as long turn-around times getting test results back from the designated labs. This delays diagnosis and hinders our ability to know the true local prevalence of the disease. 

There also is a global shortage of personal protective equipment (masks, gowns, gloves, etc.). Many of these products come from China which has experienced a large scale slowdown in production. Providence St. Mary currently has sufficient supplies but we also anticipate a massive increase in need will cause a critical shortage.

To help keep our community safe and reduce the opportunity for the virus to spread, Providence has developed fever clinics in both our Emergency Department and in Family Medicine. This allows us to separate patients experiencing symptoms of infectious diseases from patients coming in for other needs, and preserves our ability to safely care for all patients in our hospital and clinics. 

The Family Medicine fever clinic, called the East Entrance Clinic, opened March 17. If a Family Medicine patient calls for an appointment and has symptoms of possible COVID-19, they are directed to the east entrance of the Providence Family Medicine building, 1111 S Second Ave. The clinic has a separate waiting area and processes to prevent patients with possible contagions from coming in contact with other patients. 

Providence St. Mary has been preparing for the necessary treatments for COVID-19, which are largely supportive in the form of fluids, assisting breathing and treating underlying health issues or secondary bacterial infections.  We have much of what we need at this time, but a large upswing in cases could present challenges. We are making contingency plans should this occur.  

An obvious concern in this community is having enough hospital beds for the potential patients.  COVID-19 requires negative flow rooms for many treatments, meaning the air doesn’t get recycled back into the hospital.  Providence St. Mary commonly uses up to 80 beds.  Currently, we have around 17 of those beds in negative flow rooms. These are set up for one person per room, although we do have the ability to convert to double rooms if the patients in those room have the same illness.  We can also take entire units and make them for COVID-19 patients, but we must maintain some beds at a safe distance from COVID-19 areas for other urgent medical issues such as heart attacks and obstetrics. 

We hope this does not come to pass, but if our hospital or others in the area suffer a critical bed shortage, we are exploring the possibility of using the main building at the Providence Southgate Medical Park (previous Walla Walla General Hospital) as a hospital once again.  This would require a lot of coordination with state and local authorities.  The public may notice some increased activity at Southgate as we perform some advanced work on that campus in order to be prepared should the need arise.  

There are many ways that the community can assist the Walla Walla health care community through this crisis.  It is imperative that we all use the outpatient clinics at Providence Medical Group, Walla Walla Clinic, Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Family Medical Center for mild to moderate medical needs. Providence Express Care Virtual, an online appointment with a provider, also is available for care. The Emergency Department and our area Emergency Medical Services must be preserved for true emergencies and other urgent needs.  

When asked to do so, please comply with safety processes we are putting in place in our hospital and clinics as we work diligently to keep our patients and staff safe.  We realize limiting visitors is difficult on families and loved ones, but we are following guidance from the CDC to prevent the spread of illness, which is based on the best science available.  We may also ask that you delay a procedure or surgery if it is safe for you to do so.  

Limiting social interactions as a community has been very controversial. The belief is that if we can limit the number of people we have contact with, it may reduce the rate of rise in new cases.  A recent study published in Science found for every confirmed case, there are most likely another five to 10 people in the community with undetected infections. By limiting your social interactions, you can buy us time we may need if the local infection worsens. 

The Sisters of Providence came to Walla Walla in 1863 founding our hospital in 1880.  Since that time, Providence St. Mary Medical Center has cared for our community in many ways and through many crises.  Our most valuable resource remains our people -- our physicians, licensed providers, nurses, therapists, techs, caregivers and support staff that make everything we do possible.  

We and the Walla Walla community will persevere by working side by side, preparing and by sticking together. Thank you for helping us care for you, for your support and your prayers.

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