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AHS, MTMC Address Testing Developments, Potential COVID-19 Surge Plans

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Sonora, CA — With a possible case surge in the wings and new COVID-19 testing protocol in the news, Clarke Broadcasting asked the two Mother Lode hospitals about the latest related news and their associated activities.

While a couple of antibody tests have just this week been approved by the FDA to begin manufacturing, Adventist Health Sonora’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Alexander Heard says the development comes with disappointing news since it is not yet known when they might become available locally.

While there are research labs doing a limited amount of testing with hope of expanding it to the community, he acknowledges, “We don’t even know if the immunity [from COVID-19] is completely protective or not.”

When antibody testing kits do become available, he adds that the supply is likely to be limited as it is for the PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test used to detect coronavirus.

“We won’t get one for everyone so we will use it judiciously and in the right way and we are still planning how to do it. It will take some time to figure out who the right patient candidate is and how to use the test, such as someone who is at risk or who has had it.”

He continues, “We are in the acute phase rather than the recovery phases of the pandemic…and will need to address as a nation how do we live with COVID not necessarily going to go away soon…how to relax criteria in some ways [as it becomes possible].”

Community Diligence Still Needed

Although Tuolumne County’s test-positive COVID-19 cases currently sit at two, Heard recommends using Calaveras County’s slowly rising numbers (now 11 with two possibly being community transmissions) as a cautionary tale that bids following all the public health guidelines to avoid generating a surge that medical providers can’t handle.

“The blessing of ‘the calm before the storm’ is that we are able to refine our strategic plan daily with Public Health and rest of the team,” Heard confides, adding that the hospital continues modeling and planning for a surge if it comes through expanded hospital and resource capacity. “I think we are in pretty good shape as far as planning and strategy goes.”

Along with adding beds, partitions and expanding into additional treatment areas on campus, the hospital will be coordinating with other medical centers to manage patient flow as needed.

As for the COVID-19 testing protocol, Heard reports that the turnaround time has improved to be able to provide results in about four hours for hospital patients and 24 hours for non-admitted patients. Testing supplies remain a challenge, which restricts the ability to conduct one on those at highest risk versus anyone who requests it.

“We have tested around 400 patients with only three positives — if we were missing a lot of [coronavirus-infected] people we would be seeing a lot more sickness,” he maintains. Anyone with COVID-19 like symptoms is advised to call the hospital’s COVID-19 line or medical provider to be directed into the screening center.

That said, Heard wants the community to really hear that the hospital is available and ready to take care of all their medical conditions and needs, not just those that are COVID-related or acute emergencies. “All of our clinics have the availability to do virtual visits, have screening capabilities and the ability to spread people out — we have set it up to be safe so folks can get medical attention.”

MTMC Ramps Up Response

Dignity Health Mark Twain Medical Center spokesperson Nicki Stevens reports that the hospital leadership and healthcare providers continue to work closely with local health officials on COVID-19 testing and that it is still too soon to know about antibody testing capabilities or roll out.

“Currently, the Emergency Department and our James Dalton Medical Office follow the CDC guidelines with regards to COVID-19 testing — the priority is for inpatients with symptoms,” she says. “We have not implemented testing for those who are not experiencing symptoms. As for materials and testing supplies, we have multiple contingency plans to ensure our facility has the materials it needs.”

Stevens adds that Dignity Health’s supply chain is in contact with various suppliers to ensure it can replenish or move supplies as needed to any of Dignity Health’s various facilities. “We are working closely with federal, state, and local public health departments to ensure external resources are available if ever needed.”

As we reported earlier this week, Calaveras County Public Health Officer Dr. Dean Kelaita spoke with the board of supervisors about plans to prepare for a potential coronavirus surge in six to eight weeks as modeling was projecting local hospital occupancy for patients will range anywhere from 10 to 212 with a median average projection of 61.

MTMC typically has a capacity to care for 25 patients at one time but recently expanded to meet the needs of 35 to 50 if necessary. To accommodate that potential need, emergency medical equipment, supplies and 30 beds are being set up at the Calaveras High gymnasium in San Andreas. Requests for more supplies and staffing have been made through state partners.

Dr. Kelaita affirmed, “This is a big deal for our community to be doing this. We are hoping for the best, but we are preparing for the worst. The best case scenario is that we take the Alternate Care Site down if it is not needed after the next four to six-week period unfolds.” He stressed the difference between setting up the site and actually activating it but that the current steps will make the activation, should it happen, go more quickly and smoothly.

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