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New normal at regional hospitals includes screening before you enter

Life for patients and staff at hospitals across Western New York continued to change Wednesday morning as COVID-19 showed its growing force in the region.

Patients are receiving far fewer visitors, a slice of the workforce is working from home, and all who arrive at emergency rooms and limited entrances are being questioned about potential ties to the novel coronavirus and screened for respiratory illness.

A line snaked along rear of Kenmore Mercy Hospital toward the employee entrance during part of the morning, a scene similar to what played out elsewhere, particularly during shift changes.

"Being our first day, we will have to make some adjustments," Catholic Health President and CEO Mark Sullivan said, "but the important point is, we are doing what is necessary."

Hospital visitors understood the need for the extra scrutiny. Twenty people have tested positive in Erie County for COVID-19 – the latest, two former inpatients at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center – and the number of those infected is expected to multiply in coming weeks.

As COVID-19 cases grow, region faces 'daunting' shortage of hospital beds

Doctors, nurses and other staff will need to get used to arriving earlier for their shifts to undergo the process as it is tweaked.  Still, there were few significant challenges at Erie County Medical Center, the regional trauma hospital, President and CEO Thomas J. Quatroche Jr. said.

“We're doing everything we can to keep our patients safe and our colleagues safe,” Quatroche said.

Quatroche, Sullivan and other hospital leaders understand why just about everyone is focused on the climbing number of COVID-19 cases across the region and the U.S., and the growing inconvenience, but said all need to focus on the future as well as the here and now.

Sullivan said he already spends considerable time these days planning what comes next for 10,000 workers he oversees, as well as the growing number of patients he expects will soon come to depend upon them.

To that end, he’s paid close attention to what has happened in Washington state the last couple of weeks as a guide about what can be done sooner rather than later to stem fears, boost community resolve and save lives.

“If you think about this way, it's almost like getting a 10-day weather forecast,” Sullivan said.

What to do if you feel sick and think it's COVID-19

Screenings are part of that overall planning.

Like Americans across the country, Sullivan and other health system leaders expect the number of COVID-19 cases to surge during the next few weeks, as testing becomes much more common and concerns more palpable.

Staff in five Catholic Health hospitals, nursing homes, clinics and home care situations will have to work with primary care physicians and specialists for its share of an expected one in five who come down with COVID-19 and need medical treatment – including the sickest.

Kalieda Health and its roughly 13,000 employees will do the same. ECMC and its staff of 4,000 will need to cover the needs of many of the sickest novel coronavirus patients and typical patients, including in Erie County’s only behavioral health inpatient hospital, two primary care clinics and nursing home.

So far, the CEOs of all three said, patient occupancy is pretty typical for this time of year, including in their emergency departments.

Kaleida Health President and CEO Jody Lomeo and Dr. Dave Hughes, chief medical officer, stressed that those who have symptoms of a respiratory illness they believe is COVID-19 should stay home and call their primary care provider as they consider next steps instead of going to a hospital. That can reduce the potential spread of the virus and allow hospital staff to prepare for those who expect to come down with serious related symptoms in the weeks to come.

“We have about 45 days according to the governor before he sees a surge,” said Sullivan. “We need to be thinking of the next wave, of what that could look like and how we prepare – not to panic people, just to be prepared.”

Quatroche said people in the region should be encouraged that state and county health officials already are looking if need be to reopen beds in at least three shuttered hospitals – Lake Shore Health Care Center in Irving, Eastern Niagara Hospital in Newfane and DeGraff Memorial in North Tonawanda – if efforts to prevent spread of COVID-19 are insufficient.

“I think we have capacity from a space perspective,” Quatroche said. “The staffing, I’m not sure.”

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Twitter: @BNrefresh@ScottBScanlon

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