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York County hospitals brace for impact of COVID-19

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch

The state Department of Health expects to see increasing numbers of people entering hospitals next week because of COVID-19, Secretary Rachel Levine said Tuesday, but officials are working with hospitals and health care providers to ensure they're prepared for a surge.

Shortages of personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves and gowns, and medical equipment such as ventilators, have been a concern since the novel coronavirus began taking hold in the U.S.

"We have not seen that any hospitals or health systems are taxed at this time, but we want to be prepared for any eventuality," Levine said in a news conference Tuesday.

State health officials announced 20 new confirmed cases of the virus Tuesday, bringing the statewide total to 96 cases. 

Hospitals in Pennsylvania keep an extra supply of personal protective equipment in case of an emergency, Levine said, but if a hospital faces a shortage or begins to run out, the state Health Department could supplement the supply with equipment from its own stockpile.

And if the state stockpile were to run out, the federal government could ship more, she said. 

Local health care providers have also been preparing.

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which operates two hospitals in York County — UPMC Memorial and UPMC Hanover — has been working with local, state and federal officials since January to address the COVID-19 threat, said Philip Guarneschelli, UPMC Pinnacle president, in an email statement.

Guarneschelli did not specify the number of beds available to patients or how long the health system's PPE would last.

But he did say UPMC is well-equipped to safely care for all patients, including those who may have COVID-19, and that if necessary, hospital administrators could create extra room to accommodate a surge of patients.

"When necessary, we have the ability to expand capacity by converting other areas, such as post-operative recovery areas, by cancelling elective surgeries and turning post-anesthesia recovery units into intensive care units," Guarneschelli stated.

UPMC has not made a decision about whether to reopen the old Memorial Hospital in Spring Garden Township. The health system relocated the hospital to a new facility in West Manchester Township last year.

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A temporary patient screening and testing area, for the COVID-19 coronavirus, is shown outside the Emergency Department at WellSpan York Hospital in York City, Thursday, March 12, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

York Hospital, owned by WellSpan Health, has 596 total beds, including 60 in the ICU unit and 19 in the emergency room, said spokesman Ryan Coyle.

There has been an increase in the number of patients arriving, Coyle said, but the hospital has enough personal protective gear and medical equipment to meet current demand.

At Tuesday's news conference, David Padfield, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Association, said state officials are looking into whether construction companies would be willing to send their N95 respirator masks to health care providers to prevent a shortage.

The idea was first floated by Vice President Mike Pence at a White House news briefing Tuesday.

For most people living in an area without an active outbreak, the risk of contracting the virus that causes COVID-19 is low, according to the World Health Organization. And most people who get the virus will experience mild symptoms, such as a fever and cough, and will fully recover in about two weeks, the WHO has said.

But in the elderly and in people with underlying health conditions such as heart disease, lung disease or diabetes, COVID-19 can lead to serious illness with a longer recovery time of three to six weeks.

Officials at all levels of government have urged people who suspect they may have the virus to remain at home and self-isolate if they have mild symptoms or are asymptomatic, in order to prevent the spread of illness and to keep hospital beds open for those who need medical care.

This means not everyone who potentially contracts the virus will be tested and counted in the daily totals, but Levine said that's not her department's priority.

"It is important to get accurate numbers," she said, "but it’s actually more important to prevent the spread of COVID-19."

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