In a Pandemic, Health Care Leaders Shine

As they respond to COVID-19, Rockford-area health systems are finding they have a lot in common.

It was nothing like a Hollywood drama when the first COVID-19 positive patients arrived at Rockford-area hospitals. Among the physicians, nurses and staff there was a resolute calm.

“It was what we expected, it was what we prepared for, it was what we went to medical school for,” says Dr. Stephen Bartlett, chief medical officer at OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center, in Rockford. “And we are here now, to help heal the sick.”

Freeport’s FHN Memorial Hospital had been planning and training long in advance. When the first positive patient was hospitalized, it felt like a training scenario, says CEO Mark Gridley.

“It was confidence-building for a lot of our team members, because we could see how well things were working and how much we had prepared,” says Gridley. “You never really know until you get that first patient, and thankfully that patient was not critically ill, so it allowed us a little bit of room to keep learning.”

The fight against this novel coronavirus has tested our health care systems in many ways, but it’s also laid bare the fundamental strengths and the critical role our doctors, nurses and support personnel have in keeping us healthy and safe.

“I am truly humbled to be a part of the administrative team and medical staff,” says Dr. Roger Kapoor, chief medical officer for Beloit Health System. “The heroism of those in the medical profession – who continue to come to work every day and put themselves and their families at risk – is truly inspiring.”

A tent outside Mercyhealth’s Javon Bea Hospital-Riverside, in Rockford, provides an alternate space to treat patients with mild to moderate forms of COVID-19. Here, they’ll avoid exposing themselves to additional illness or sharing the virus with others.

Preparing the Defenses
It was in January, when COVID-19 was rapidly spreading from China, that OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center (SAMC) began drawing up its defenses.

“It’s amazing to me how thorough we were, from medications and pharmacy, all the way to patient traffic in the hospital, visitors, even food service, too,” says Bartlett, who’s worked with several health care systems in his 41-year medical career. “I have to say, they’ve thought of everything.”

When Rockford’s first patient was hospitalized at Mercyhealth Javon Bea Hospital, local health care systems were fully equipped with incident command centers and tightened visitor protocols.

“Early on, there was a strong focus on people who were traveling and patients with symptoms, and while that was the appropriate early focus, we quickly realized there were a whole lot of people who were asymptomatic carriers,” says Dr. John Dorsey, chief medical officer for Mercyhealth. “We’ve had to adjust our approaches to rules and recommendations, and we continue to evaluate as we hear something different.”

The unusual experience of anticipating a pandemic required additional precautions to protect both caregivers and patients. Elective surgeries were suspended. Crucial supplies were conserved, and independent testing centers were established to help limit the spread of infection. In some cases, physician appointments were rescheduled or moved to virtual visits.

“It has been our philosophy that we want to minimize any unnecessary visits to our facilities, but we also need to continue to function as a health care system, to serve patients who need care,” says Dorsey.

Beloit Health System early on suspended volunteer programs, restricted visitors, and screened both visitors and staff daily for potential symptoms. They closed the hospital gift shop, grill and NorthPointe Wellness Center, just to be safe.

“These are unprecedented times, and we are doing everything we can to put the safety of our staff, patients and community first, because our staff are really our most important asset,” says Kapoor.

At the same time, health care facilities braced for a potential influx of patients.

At its two Rockford hospital campuses, Mercyhealth opened dedicated COVID units, in an effort to prevent the spread of infection. If needed, plans are in place to re-open parts of the Rockton Avenue campus that were vacated when the Riverside campus opened last year.

“Having two campuses has given us the luxury of being able to expand our bed capacity and also to cohort COVID patients together,” says Dorsey. “That’s important, because it also helps to conserve our personal protective equipment, too. If you have a group cohorted together, then caretakers don’t have to keep taking off, and putting back on, and discarding a lot of PPEs in that process. And, we can concentrate our medical care on those patients through the physicians being assigned to those units.”

OSF was focused on maximizing space. A negative pressure room, where air flows in and is vented directly out of the building, is a necessary precaution to keep the virus from spreading to others. But there are a limited number of these rooms.

“So, we’ve developed a plan for how to convert other hospital rooms into a negative pressure room so that, should there be a surge in the number of patients we encounter, we are ready to create more,” says Bartlett. “We’ve already demonstrated it and were able to prove that it worked, and that we could make the conversion in 3 hours.”

To some extent, defending against coronavirus isn’t unfamiliar territory, says Gridley, as most hospitals already have some protocols for dealing with infectious diseases.

“Health care providers have been working with patients in what we call ‘isolation precaution’ for infectious types of diseases for a very long time,” says Gridley. “So, caring for a COVID-19 patient applies many of those same practices.”

Stepping beyond standard protocols, FHN is employing common-sense strategies to keep patients and workers safe. Appointments at FHN’s nearly 20 outpatient clinics were spaced out or rescheduled, in order to increase social distancing. The environmental services team is being deployed to keep floors and other surfaces cleaned. Combined, these protections help to reinforce a sense of calm.

“I received a letter from a patient who was commenting on watching the cleaning staff,” Gridley says. “This person was already nervous about being in a health care facility, but they needed to come in. It was urgent enough they had to be seen. They said it gave them a great deal of reassurance seeing the cleaning crews out there and doing a thorough job.”

The team at FHN Memorial Hospital, in Freeport, held multiple training sessions and mock scenarios as it prepared for an influx of COVID-19 patients.

Heroes at Work
Our region’s health care facilities have many resources at their disposal in attacking the coronavirus, but there’s one that stands far above the rest.

“The greatest resource our community has is our health care workers, and all of the people involved in supporting the health system,” says Gridley. “When you have a resource like that, I think you can get through anything.”

Gridley, himself a nurse by training, remains impressed with the level of commitment and compassion he’s seen from the doctors and nurses, as well as the numerous support roles behind them – administration, cleaning, food, facilities and more. Across the board, Gridley is seeing teams embrace innovation and uncertainty in pursuit of patient care.

“They have not shied away from the challenge, despite having their own fears and anxieties,” he says. “They’ve demonstrated a great deal of bravery in saying, ‘What is it we need to do to make sure we can care for all of the families in our region?’ They’re putting the needs of others first.”

Dorsey remains impressed with the can-do attitude he’s seeing at every level of Mercyhealth.

“The thing that’s quite striking to me is we have staff from the clinics who are willing to come into the hospital if there’s a large surge that’s beyond our typical capacity,” says Dorsey. “I’ve even had retired physicians calling to help out. People really want to do something.”

Bartlett, of OSF Saint Anthony, considers it a joy to see his team bonding through a stressful situation.

“My experience with the preparations and the way people are handling this crisis is truly inspiring,” he says. “I hate to use the word fun, because nobody wants to think of this event as fun, but it really is a joy to see people working so well together.”

There remain many challenges, not least of which is the rapidly changing information. Recommendations and executive orders have changed daily or more frequently. Research is revealing ever more. Physicians across the area are trying to stay abreast.

“We’re making sure that all of our mission partners can take an hour a day to study up on what the ministry directives are,” says Bartlett. “Doctors are busy taking care of patients, and they aren’t accustomed to stopping an hour a day to read and study.”

Health systems are also trying to mitigate fears and address uncertainty among the general population. Dedicated pages on their websites offer helpful advice and information, but they also maintain COVID hotlines in which medical professionals will answer questions and concerns from ordinary citizens.

OSF’s chatbot, Clare, is a digital assistant that can listen for symptoms, provide initial screenings and referrals.
“We believe that we have the responsibility and privilege to help educate people about this disease and pandemic, and we have a duty to help get our community through this,” says Kapoor.

Inside the pandemic response center at OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center, in Rockford, staff members monitor changing conditions and the hospital’s ability to respond.

Pursuing a Common Goal
It’s no secret our region is a center of medical excellence. Rockford’s health care landscape includes two NICUs, a designated children’s hospital, ties with Mayo Clinic and partnerships with a variety of specialty physicians. Beloit Health System and Freeport’s FHN also maintain impressive specialties.

Just how well prepared were they for a pandemic? The answer shows in their rapid, coordinated response.
“We’ve put aside our individual identities and looked at how we can best manage the situation for our community,” says Gridley. “And this is not the first time that, as hospitals or health care facilities, we’re working together. We do some disaster training and preparedness training, as well as joint exercises, and we’re really starting to see the advantages of having done that, especially now.”

The area’s chief medical officers conference daily with Rockford’s emergency operation center and leaders like Dr. Sandra Martell, of the Winnebago County Health Department.

“Sandra and the health department team have worked very effectively at keeping the three hospitals coordinated,” Bartlett says. “Her daily and twice-weekly phone calls have been very effective at keeping all of the health systems working together, and distributing information on where we stand.”

Similarly, Kapoor credits authorities at all levels for their efforts in transmitting information and keeping everyone working as a collective unit, he says.

“We applaud all of our national, regional and state agencies for their efforts to keep everyone up-to-date on new information as it becomes available,” he says. “Our organization’s ability to remain nimble and able to ‘row in the same direction,’ because of our high staff alignment, has been tremendously beneficial.”

Lessons for the Future
As of publication, Illinois has reported nearly 140,000 cases of COVID-19, with more than 2,800 in Winnebago County, more than 550 in Boone County, and 250 in Stephenson County. Wisconsin has reported 25,000 cases, with nearly 800 in Rock County.

Exactly what lies ahead is still unknown, but health care organizations are anticipating what’s to come.
Dorsey believes the long-lasting effect will be akin to travel restrictions implemented after 9/11: protocols will change, and patients will settle into a “new normal.”

In the short term, he expects life will slowly return to normal until the threat of COVID-19 is diminished. Longer term, expect to see telemedicine play a continuing role.

“I see that as a good thing,” says Dorsey. “I don’t think it’s going to replace face-to-face visits, but I think it can augment it considerably.”

Adds Bartlett: “Health care as we know it has changed, overnight, by the use of telemedicine in primary, specialty and ICU care. It’s been rapidly embraced and developed, and has become a major part of how health care is delivered. That will never change back.”

Surviving through a pandemic has also proven out the strength and resiliency of our local health care systems.
“I believe we are going to come out of this a much stronger health system,” says Gridley. “We are going to be prepared. There are many lessons we have learned, and we are going to be in a much better position to be able to address this more promptly and assertively than we are now.”

Ultimately, while it’s challenged us in many ways, it may just prove the American spirit is as strong as ever.
“We continue to learn, daily, what we are capable of as a community, a health care organization, and individuals,” says Kapoor. “Our community is selfless. Our community is united. Our community is prepared. Our community is stronger than it has ever been.”

What Exactly is COVID-19?

Coronavirus is a large family of viruses that produces the symptoms of a common cold. Coronaviruses can originate in animals and sometimes mutate to infect humans, as is the case with COVID-19. This particular form is called “novel” because it’s never before appeared in people. It takes its name from corona (co), virus (vi), disease (d) and the year it first appeared (2019).

Research shows COVID-19 spreads through respiratory droplets, like that of a sneeze or cough. Thus, measures like social distancing or wearing a mask can reduce the possibility of someone inhaling infected droplets.

The virus doesn’t survive well on surfaces like food products or packaging. However, it’s possible someone could encounter the virus on a surface, and then become infected when they touch their eyes, nose or mouth.

Common symptoms include mild to severe respiratory illness, fever, cough and difficulty breathing.

Source: Centers for Disease Control