OCEAN CITY — With Maryland’s key COVID metrics continuing to surge in the wrong direction, Gov. Larry Hogan this week announced more efforts to stem the spread including mobilizing more capacity and staffing at hospitals, but on the Lower Shore, area hospitals appear to be coping thus far.
In his weekly press conference on Tuesday, Hogan said the state’s key COVID metrics continue to trend upward including the number of cases, the testing positivity rates, hospitalizations and, unfortunately, deaths. To that end, the governor announced a series of new initiatives aimed at preparing hospitals statewide to handle the growing number of cases each day.
The initiatives, under the larger umbrella of MarylandMedNow, include mobilizing hospital staffing from a variety of sources, increasing hospital acute bed capacity, urging colleges and universities to award academic credit to students for hands-on healthcare work in the field and others. Hogan said the recent surge, which has now included 24 straight days of at least 1,000 new cases statewide, is testing the state’s healthcare system, but the initiatives he announced on Tuesday will help stem the tide.
“The current surge is not only increasing the burden on our healthcare system and filling available hospital beds, but is also affecting our healthcare workers who are already spread thin and operating under immense strain and stress,” he said. “We are laser focused on taking actions in an effort to prevent the overburdening of our healthcare system.”
Hogan’s senior medical advisor Dr. David Marcozzi on Tuesday voiced concerns about the current surge and the potential for it to continue during the holiday season and throughout the winter.
“Due to the rising number of cases, we’re very concerned about the acceleration of the spread during the holidays,” he said. “Unfortunately, the virus doesn’t take a day off. Hospitalizations, cases and deaths will continue. We did it before and we can do it again.”
On Thursday, the number of new cases statewide increased by 2,044, while the testing positivity rate increased to 7.68%. The number of deaths attributed to COVID statewide increased by 48, but the number of hospitalizations decreased slightly by five. Across Maryland, the recent surge is straining the healthcare systems in many areas. On the Lower Shore, including Worcester and Wicomico, the increase in key metrics has been less pronounced, but area hospitals are prepared for a spike if and when it comes.
For example, Atlantic General Hospital (AGH) has been preparing and planning for a spike in new cases since the onset of the pandemic last spring. Vice President of Patient Care Services and Chief Nursing Officer Matt Morris said AGH is not yet nearing capacity for COVID cases, or for patients in general.
“AGH is experiencing near-normal volumes in clinical areas,” he said. “Emergency room, urgent care, laboratory, radiology, surgical services, inpatient services and the health system primary care sites are ready and able to care for our community.”
Over at TidalHealth Peninsula Regional Hospital in Salisbury, a similar situation regarding capacity is playing out. Director of Strategic Communications Roger Follebout, Jr. said the hospital monitors capacity every day in preparation for a potential surge.
“TidalHealth Peninsula Regional is maintaining census points similar to those prior to COVID, which we are well-equipped to manage,” he said. “At this time, we have not reached physical bed space capacity. We evaluate the need to expand capacity for COVID patients on a daily basis, often several times a day, to ensure we are prepared for all patient needs.”
In terms of space needed for a potential spike in new cases, Morris said AGH began preparing in the spring and there is capacity available if there is a surge locally. As of Wednesday, AGH had seven COVID patients in the hospital.
“In the spring, we opened additional ICU beds and prepared to expand inpatient acute care beds,” he said. “Those contingency plans are still in place, but have not been needed to date this fall. We will reopen expanded areas as needed to care for our community.”
Over at TidalHealth Peninsula, Follebout said an entire wing of the hospital can be dedicated to COVID cases by design well before the outbreak of the coronavirus.
“The Layfield Tower was designed 10 years ago to function as a negative air flow environment and it continues as that today,” he said. “It essentially allows us to section off that tower of the hospital as needed and segregate COVID patients there separate from the traditional patient population. We have a similar unit adjacent to our emergency department that is equipped, as needed, to support COVID admissions. The Hallowell Conference Center, which was converted into a 44-bed ICU earlier this year, remains in that configuration, but is currently not housing any patients.”
The need for more staffing was a key focus of Hogan’s announcements on Tuesday regarding healthcare and the recent surge. The governor announced the launch of MarylandMedNow to recruit job-seekers with clinical backgrounds to work at state hospitals, nursing homes, testing sites and vaccination clinics.
Hogan also urged local jurisdictions to mobilize underutilized school nurses and requested Maryland colleges and universities to immediately develop emergency procedures and policies to award academic credit to students for hands-on work experience in healthcare during the pandemic.
On the Lower Shore, the need for more staff to handle the recent COVID surge has been less acute.
“AGH has a low vacancy rate and a skilled, experienced staff,” said Morris. “Given the lack of supplemental agency staff across the country, AGH has planned to leverage internal resources from alternate clinical and administrative areas to manage the expected COVID-19 volumes.”
Follebout said TidalHealth Peninsula was not yet experiencing acute staffing shortages felt by many community hospitals around the state, but the situation is monitored daily.
“Staffing is dependent on so many factors,” he said. “Much like capacity, it is also assessed several times a day. Throughout the country, including Delmarva peninsula hospitals, the ability to augment normal staffing levels with temporary staffing is very challenging. There are more needs nationwide than the temporary staffing companies are able to support. Currently, the team at TidalHealth is doing an exceptional job at meeting our staffing needs and providing outstanding patient care.”
Morris said AGH has been and remains out front of the COVID pandemic with innovative treatment plans for patients.
“AGH is proud that we have brought state-of-the-art treatments to our community throughout this pandemic,” he said. “Being early adopters of convalescent plasma treatments through an affiliation with the Mayo Clinic and providing Remdesivir to our inpatients have supported strong clinical outcomes. AGH is preparing to receive monoclonal antibody treatments within the next few days. An infusion area on the main campus will perform the infusion services. Further, AGH is actively preparing to receive the COVID-19 vaccine to be provided within the parameters designated by the CDC and the state of Maryland.”