Great River Health CEO asks for resiliency

BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
PCC EDITOR

BURLINGTON – Great River Health System CEO Matt Wenzel said discussion of facts and hope is the best way through the uncharted coronavirus pandemic.

Wenzel and GRHS Chief Medical Officer Michael McCoy spent an hour with more than 100 people on virtual call sponsored by Greater Burlington Partnership Friday at noon.

Wenzel said Iowa is a hot spot on a global scale and the number of cases can be expected to double, triple or even quadruple over the holidays.

“It stinks… but if people gather with others that usually aren’t around and spread this virus, and then we see a double, tripling, quadrupling – who knows where it stops. The request is to avoid gatherings around this Thanksgiving season,” Wenzel said.

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As of this morning, the United States has seen 11.8 million people affected by COVID, which is No. 1 in the world, Wenzel said. He also said Iowa is in the top five of U.S. states in total cases per 100,000 and is 4th in the country in growth over the last seven days.

“By any indicator, that’s how fast this is growing,” he said.

At the peak of the virus last summer, the hospital was losing $10 million to $12 million per month, but when the governor reinstated elective procedures, Wenzel said things evened out, but now the hospital is back to losing $1 million per month and headed down.

He took the time to address what he called the insulting rumor that hospitals make money off of COVID cases.

“That’s absolutely insulting. I go up and around and look in on a nurse in full garb and to suggest that they get paid more if that patient dies is ludicrous and has to stop,” he said.

“We do get paid more based on a COVID diagnosis, but we spend more taking care of that patient based on the needs of that patient. We lose less money with a COVID diagnosis. Anything else is just insulting.”

Fort Madison Community Hospital CEO Shelby Burchett said in a Pen City Current interview Thursday that staffing there is being stretched thin as numbers rise locally.

McCoy said the same thing about staffing at GRMC.

“It’s the same story up and down the region. We all have a lack of staff. GRMC has had an average of 82 staff members not at work. Today that number is 97,” McCoy said. “Twenty-seven at Klein are not at work. That’s a crisis staffing situation.”

Wenzel said there isn’t more staffing available anywhere.

“No cavalry is coming in. We’ve got what we got and we’ve asked more people to pick up shifts. We don’t have enough staff. We are preparing for a doubling (of cases) of where we’re at currently. There are only a few beds open – period. This is the reality across Iowa and in this region.”

McCoy said treatments are focusing on steroids and some monoclonal antibody outpatient treatments. The system does have a share of Remdesivir on hand and is using that in acute patients, but he said the success of the drug has been met with conflicting reports.

Plasma has been used on site at GRMC, but currently the system is out. He said those who’ve been exposed to COVID and recovered could be tested at Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center for antibodies which would allow donating of plasma.

Wenzel said however, it isn’t a time to panic. Residents need to be armed with accurate information and stay positive.

“We will get out of this. I can’t tell you when, No one can. We have to have resolve and hope for the future and if you lose, that… you just have to have resiliency,” he said.

McCoy said hospitalization rates across the state have doubled in the past two weeks, a fact that was shared by Governor Kim Reynolds in a press conference earlier this week.

McCoy said hospitalizations are now at 1,500 compared to just 700 at the start of November. He said GRMC’s highest COVID census prior to Monday was around 20 in August. He said this week started with 39 and the hospital is now trying to plan for a surge of at least double that amount.

He said walls are being built in other wings and elective procedures have been reduced to urgent and emergent cases and those staff have been moved to COVID care.

McCoy also said the increase in positive cases is not due to an increase in overall testing.

“We’ve had a 30% increase in new cases in the past week while only a 10% increase in tests in the same time frame. Just getting more positives due to more testing is not the case, and it’s not what were seeing in the hospital.” he said.

Wenzel said volunteers are needed to fill some capacities that would permit trained staff to move back to patient care and he said the donations to the hospital have been monumental in keeping staff morale high. Volunteers can contact the systems HR offices to see how to help.

McCoy said he feels like health leaders are talking into the abyss.

“Stop sharing air. It isn’t political. This virus doesn’t care. The only thing we can control is our behavior and how we interact with each other. That’s the only thing we can control until we have a vaccine and immunity,” McCoy said.

McCoy also addressed reinfection saying that only a handful of people around the world have been documented to have contracted COVID a second time. He said the Centers for Disease Control is indicating you shouldn’t need to be retested for at least 90 days after a recovering, but he said there are still too many unknowns about what to tell people clinically.

“Most people would say you would be immune for more than three months, but the CDC has said 90 days.”

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