As the number of COVID-19 infections ramps up, Littleton Adventist Hospital is bracing for the impact.
“This isn't a sprint, it's a marathon,” said Dr. Mark Elliott, the president of medical staff at the south Littleton hospital. “We're all somewhat fearful this is the calm before the storm. It's like a mass casualty event in slow motion.”
The hospital has been preparing for a surge since early March, Elliott said, converting two floors of the hospital to isolate positive coronavirus cases and converting 20 rooms to negative airflow, for a total of 30. All elective surgeries, like joint replacements, weight loss surgeries or cosmetic surgeries, have been canceled for now.
“I want to make it clear how dangerous this is,” said Elliott, who has been at the hospital for decades, including through the 1999 Columbine High School shooting, and still works in the emergency department. “People keep saying this is on par with the flu. That's not true at all.”
Fewer than 1% of patients need hospitalization for the flu, Elliott said, compared to 15% to 20% for those with COVID-19. Of those, about a quarter will need intensive care. Of those, half need ventilation. COVID-19 is also far more transferable than the flu.
MORE: Full coverage of COVID-19
A typical flu season can fill area hospitals, Elliott said, meaning a surge of COVID-19 patients could overwhelm the health care system.
“This is far beyond the flu,” Elliott said. “We're seeing the edges of this now, but we don't know how bad it's going to be. It's got us all anxious. Will we be able to keep up? By staying home, you are saving lives.”
Elliott declined to say how many COVID-19 cases the hospital has seen so far, or whether the hospital has had any deaths from the disease. He said some staff members have shown symptoms and have been told to stay home until they are no longer symptomatic, though he declined to say how many.
Elliott spoke with Colorado Community Media on March 26, the day the state health department reported that Colorado had amassed nearly 1,500 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 24 deaths.
“At this point, it's fair to say every hospital, urgent care and walk-in clinic in the state has probably seen cases, whether they know it or not,” Elliott said.
Doctors and hospital administrators are communicating regularly with local, state and federal officials, Elliott said, and the hospital system's incident command centers are operating 12 hours a day.
Staff are already reusing personal protective equipment like masks and gowns that would normally be discarded between patients, Elliott said. The hospital is “gladly” accepting donations of gloves and face masks from the public, he said — though they don't accept homemade masks.
The hospital currently has 22 ventilators, he said, and can source more from within the Centura hospital network.
Littleton Adventist is only administering COVID-19 tests to patients who require hospitalization, Elliott said, both in an effort to conserve tests and to not overwhelm state laboratories that process the tests. The turnaround time on tests is currently 5-7 days, he said.
Patients who don't require hospitalization are sent home and instructed to self-isolate until they are free of symptoms for three days. Those who could be sent home but live in a high-risk environment like a nursing home are held at the hospital until the test results are returned.
Staff are feeling the stress. The extra gear required to attend patients makes each visit take longer. Staff are concerned about getting the virus themselves, or worse, taking it home to their families. Most change their clothes before they go home and don't allow family members to handle clothing from the hospital.
The hospital is still duly attending to all other non-elective patient needs, and treating heart attacks and strokes as diligently as ever, Elliott said.
With the number of infections growing rapidly, Elliott said it's crucial people take public health orders seriously.
“I want to make sure everyone understands how potentially dangerous this is for themselves, each other and the whole health care community.”
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