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The COVID-19 pandemic is back with a vengeance in Colorado, the United States and much of the world.  It’s often disheartening to see the escalating infections, hospitalizations, and deaths as well as the continued economic devastation.

Meanwhile, many healthcare providers and planners are working diligently to prepare for additional case surges while attempting to keep health resources from being overwhelmed. That’s especially important with health experts saying prospects for a vaccine being available in Colorado anytime sooner than next year are unclear.

In Chaffee County, which has thus far weathered the pandemic in better shape than other areas, this work includes twice-weekly coronavirus planning sessions with stakeholders plus meticulous strategy sessions.

At Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center (HRRMC), Vice President of Patient Services April Asbury said internal conferences are underway to see what adjustments may be required to their initial set of protocols and procedures adopted successfully when the pandemic first hit, earlier this year.

The procedures enacted then, included halting most elective surgery procedures and emergent care and assigning personnel to different workforce roles in the hospital and clinics.  This strategy resulted in avoiding layoffs or furloughs of workers and was generally considered very effective in preparing the facility to handle unknown conditions that might present as the virus first impacted the community.

“We’re actively engaging in that process now, to determine; what does a new labor pool look like, what does a new alternate care facility site look like, how do we adapt and how do we make sure that we are as prepared as we can be with the resources at our fingertips, or with outside resources,” Asbury told Ark Valley Voice.

“We have a new vision that we’re working toward, that we’re really trying to keep things as calm and as status quo as possible, because we haven’t had any transmission at the hospital that we’ve identified, and even though the numbers are higher, we have continued to identify that within our facilities and with the increase in the county and what we’re able to do and how we’re able to treat patients and how we’re able to keep people safe,” added Asbury.  “We really haven’t internally identified an actual resurge[nce] because we do have staff, we do have PPE, we do have our safeguards in place, we do have the things we need to properly treat our patients, so we’re doing very well – I think that we want to do as much as we can to prepare for something that could be much worse.”

As a 25-bed critical access hospital, HRRMC is equipped with two Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds and has been able to convert other rooms to negative pressure rooms so they have that capability in the Emergency Rooms and Operating Rooms as well as the inpatient side.

Asbury said a pressurized oxygenation system, as opposed to a ventilator, has been effective in helping with patients with oxygen needs.

Most COVID-19 patients have recovered, and while some staff have been infected, it’s felt it came from community contact and not at work. At any time about three to five staff are out under quarantine for COVID-19 precautions, or testing positive and must be symptom-free in order to return to work, she said.

As far as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) supplies, Asbury said the hospital district is confident it has effective monitoring of individual supplies and has a new additional supply source and they are proactive in ensuring that a viable two-week supply of PPE is maintained.

Part of the early planning among stakeholders countywide was to identify a location where some patients could be transferred under a pandemic surge that would otherwise strain hospital facilities.

Another aspect of that plan would include moving patients to a facility like the county fairgrounds, where non-COVID patients or virus patients who’ve recovered but need a little more care could be treated.

County Emergency Management head Rich Atkins said recently that plan remains in place with appropriate agencies ready to adapt it as need be in case of a pandemic surge.

HRRMC is also part of a new Regional Transfer Agency working to identify plans for moving patients from overstressed facilities to those with available beds. Working with the Colorado Health Association and the Western Health Alliance, health providers are in daily contact about levels of ability to take sick patients.

Asbury said having robust clinical and education programs puts the facilities at an advantage here from a staffing perspective.

As the community’s largest employer, the financial impact of the pandemic has been felt at HRRMC in revenue shortfalls, as with many businesses. But Asbury said the healthcare relief funding from the CARES Act and other resources have been a big help in staying focused on needed health care.

“As long as you’re making patient-centered decisions and you are doing right by the people that you serve, the bottom line generally comes – and we’re not that concerned with the bottom line,” she said.

With the holiday season upon us, it’s recognized how difficult it is for the community – residents, businesses, and healthcare workers alike, to continue the pandemic fight.

”It’s just so important that people do take it seriously and they do practice as much Safe at Home as they possibly can until we can get over this hump,” she added.

Those precautions, often repeated, include being conscientious about mask-wearing in public and private, maintaining proper distance, frequent hand washing, and limiting group sizes, especially with the holidays upon us.

“It stinks, but it’s super important right now,” she added.

She stressed that HRRMC directors and management all working to instill confidence with the public.

“We’re a dynamic team, we’re an informed team and we partner with our local and state public health officials whenever we need to, we continuously are in conversation; that we do seek and obtain whatever we need to achieve evidence-based care and we’re working this for the long haul … we’re maintaining our mental health and our physical health and we’re strong, and we will do whatever it takes,” Asbury added.