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By SARA ARTHURS

STAFF WRITER

Blanchard Valley Health System has what would — under normal circumstances — be enough hospital beds and ventilators. But these are not normal times. So the health system is continuing to encourage community members to stay home to avoid spreading the coronavirus — and, at the same time, preparing in case there’s a surge of patients and more beds are needed.

“People around here are working literally almost around the clock” to ensure they’re prepared, said Ryan Shoemaker, director of facility and support services and head of “incident command” (disaster preparedness) for the health system.

Dr. Bill Kose, vice president of special projects, said if the number of people needing to be hospitalized for coronavirus regularly doubles, then there might be 10 patients one day, then 20, then 40, then 80, then 160.

Blanchard Valley Hospital has 150 beds. Bluffton Hospital has 25 beds. Many are already occupied by patients with other illnesses.

And it’s not just the beds. The hospitals would also need enough ventilators and personnel to take care of an exponentially increasing number of patients, Kose said.

This is why it’s so important that people stay away from other people — because if a sick person doesn’t encounter other human beings, they can’t spread it and make more people sick. And someone can spread the coronavirus even before they are showing symptoms.

Kose said social distancing will make the rate of new infections slower. And the hospitals would have enough personnel, ventilators and beds to handle the crisis if there were not too many people infected at one time.

But they’re looking at “what could our occupancy be” — that is, adding more beds, said Natalie Phoenix, director of the emergency department at Blanchard Valley Hospital.

Creating a makeshift hospital by putting beds in, say, a school “would be a possibility,” Kose said. But the health system would prefer to first add more beds to the hospital itself, both because of the need to keep things sterile and because that means equipment and staff wouldn’t have to travel between locations. This could mean putting two beds in what are now private rooms, or putting beds in rooms usually used for things like surgeries or anesthesia.

Phoenix said the health system is also “redeploying” staff as needed to address the crisis. And she pointed out that, if need be, they could activate what’s known as the medical reserve corps — medical professionals willing to help in such situations.

Kose said some of the doctors’ offices are not as busy, so they’re seeing where, for example, nurses who usually work in other areas might be able to address the coronavirus crisis.

But a surge “could be a real problem,” Kose said. Staff themselves could get sick or could need to be quarantined because they were exposed. And some health care, unlike elective surgeries, cannot be postponed. Obstetrics staff, for example, need to be on call in case they need to perform a C-section, Kose said.

And, while “I don’t want to scare people,” health system leaders are, yes, having conversations about the possibility that they could need more ventilators than they have, Kose said.

Kose said they’ve heard of some medical professionals in Italy who have been able to use one ventilator for more than one patient, and they’re doing research on this.

The more immediate worry is personal protective equipment, like surgical masks. Kose said right now, the health system has an ample supply of masks for its needs — “assuming we don’t have much of a surge.”

Phoenix said there must also be a transition plan in place, so when a patient gets better and leaves the hospital, they can get care at a long-term care facility or through home health. Health care workers are figuring out what this care looks like, but “everyone’s still learning,” Phoenix said.

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