St. Luke prepares for COVID-19; trying to stay ahead of the virus

by Whitney England
Daily Inter Lake | April 2, 2020 12:02 PM

Last week Lake County recorded its first positive cases of COVID-19, including one woman who tested positive at St. Luke Community Healthcare’s curb-side convenient care.

Over the course of the last couple weeks since the coronavirus reached Montana, St. Luke has been preparing for the virus by altering many procedures and prepping staff with knowledge and appropriate equipment.

The hospital in Ronan is hoping the community will not reach the point of a major surge in cases, however it has initiated an incident command which gets the staff together through daily huddles in an attempt to stay ahead of this viral outbreak.

St. Luke also participates in a recently-formed Lake County health task force, which also includes Lake County Public Health, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribal Health, Kalispell Regional Healthcare, Providence St. Joseph Medical Center and many other health-care providers in the area. In addition the force involves emergency management teams for both the county and the tribe.

St. Luke Community Healthcare CEO Steve Todd explained the hospital and its clinics are working closely with the task force to prepare for a potential large-scale growth in cases locally.

“We are presently in the process of planning for surge capacity,” Todd said. “That means, what happens if we get overrun with a particular patient population in a particular area. So we’re trying to kind of scenario-plan around what impact that might have.”

Todd explained that St. Luke, along with the entire task force, is looking at incidents happening in other areas and doing its best to learn how to locally prepare. He feels fortunate that Lake County has been ahead of the wave of cases across the country, which gives local hospitals an opportunity to create a better informed plan.

“We’re fortunate that we have time to plan and prepare, but every place is a little different and every situation is unique,” Todd said. “So we’re trying to do the best we can to make sense of what might happen here.”

Much of their potential outbreak preparation revolves around the ways that they could house more patients within the hospital if needed. Also Todd and his staff are considering what resources they would need amid a surge from a personnel standpoint, as well as a physical location and equipment standpoint.

Another consideration is how they would be able to provide mutual aid working with other health-care providers should another hospital in the area get overrun with sick patients.

As well as preparing for a future rise of cases, St. Luke has already initiated many procedural changes within its facilities. One of the largest COVID-19 specific procedures is the curb-side screening and triage assessment that takes place in the hospital parking lot. Many hospitals across the country have set up a similar process.

As a way to slow the spread of this disease, the hospital is doing everything it can to keep potentially contagious people out of the building unless it is an emergency situation. Abigail Byers, St. Luke’s director of nursing, explained that a nurse in proper protective equipment will walk out to the potentially infected patient’s car and perform an assessment.

“If they’re running a fever or have a cough or anything along the lines of the COVID symptoms we really want to keep them out of the facility if we can and we do a lot of screening triage right out in their cars,” Byers said.

The curb-side screening is in place for anyone who has common coronavirus-related symptoms. The nurse performing the screening will take a temperature, and then ask about any recent travel and symptoms. According to Byers, the nurse will then test for influenza, RSV and other illnesses before ordering a COVID-19 test. All the tests besides the coronavirus can be done in-house in less than 15 minutes, but the COVID-19 test takes 24-48 hours after being sent to a state facility.

Byers and Todd are both pleased with the smooth operation of the curb-side convenient care and also the community’s patience in adjusting to the new procedure.

“I think we’ve been fairly pleased (with curb-side screening),” Todd said. “And just really pleased with the community’s response. They’ve been really willing to go through that process and we certainly appreciate their patience in that.”

Last week St. Luke also put a virtual health-care platform in place to help with screening and treating patients. The hospital has been utilizing this technology to be able to provide care to as many people as possible while limiting potential exposure to COVID-19. Todd said the virtual care is helping people that have just regular doctor’s appointments, that need to be screened for COVID-19 or that need to be treated after testing positive for the disease.

“That use can be somewhat limited, but it is surprising how much you can accomplish through those virtual visits, so that’s been a nice addition,” Todd said.

St. Luke has also changed some of its procedures and policies amid viral outbreak concerns. It has locked down the hospital and only allows visitors for necessary situations, as well as canceled all elective surgeries.

Todd said one of the hospital’s biggest concerns is personal protection equipment such as masks. The hospital is well stocked as of now, but based on experiences from other facilities in virus hotspots throughout the country he is slightly worried. The community has been making masks and bouffant caps, which he said was helpful and they may reach out to residents again.

“The challenge is right now things are pretty light…” Todd said. “We don’t know yet, we think PPE is going to be a concern.”

St. Luke has heard from colleagues in other areas that are in “a pretty dire situation.” He is hopeful Lake County can avoid a surge in cases, but knows the community must be in full compliance with Gov. Steve Bullock’s directive in order to prevent it.

“Obviously the more that our community can be careful and compliant, the more likelihood we’ll make it out of this without too many huge problems,” Todd said. “I think we’re cautious about things for sure, we’re anxious as probably all of the community is, but we’re fortunate that we have time in front of us and we just hope that we can plan accordingly through that time.”

Byers added that she and the hospital’s management team has open communication with nursing staff and encourages speaking up about any concerns they may have. She again wants to encourage residents to be diligent in all preventative measures.

“Really the best thing people can do for us is to stay home,” Byers said. “Prevention is really key here and social distancing and social isolation is huge for that and really will give us the best opportunity to best help our community, neighbors and friends.”

According to St. Joseph’s Providence Medical Center’s press releases, they have many of the similar procedures in place. However they are unable to take any interviews at this time.

Reporter Whitney England may be reached at 758-4419 or wengland@leaderadvertiser.com