PROVIDENCE — Hospitals have formed task forces, intensified monitoring, conserved and restocked supplies of protective equipment, and buttressed communication with federal and state authorities.
Physicians are screening patients with respiratory illness for travel history or exposure.
The Rhode Island Department of Health is operating an “Incident Command System” to coordinate efforts with other agencies and organizations.
These are among the many local developments in a week when a leading federal health official warned that the spread of COVID-19, the coronavirus disease identified in 2019, in the United States is all but certain.
“It’s not so much of a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more of a question of exactly when this will happen,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Tuesday.
In a Thursday news release, the state Health Department listed the latest steps in what it described as “an evolving situation,” one currently with a “low” risk level for Rhode Islanders. Still, at a Thursday afternoon press conference, director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said “we anticipate that a case will happen in Rhode Island.”
The director said “it’s not a definite, but it’s definitely what we are preparing for given what we are seeing worldwide.”
Among the other steps her department has taken is coordination with “other state agencies, community organizations, health-care providers, health-care facilities, schools, and colleges and universities, among numerous other partners as a part of readiness planning and to provide education, guidance, and support,” according to the department. A full list and more is at https://www.ri.gov/press/view/37803
Lifespan, the largest health-care system in Rhode Island, on Friday shared with The Journal details of planning at its five hospitals.
According to information provided by Christina Spaight O’Reilly, senior public relations officer at Lifespan/Rhode Island Hospital, a task force includes “physicians with expertise in infectious diseases and infection control, hospital presidents and chief medical officers, chief nursing officers, and representation from outpatient practices, as well as support functions including facilities management and supply chain.”
Across the Lifespan system, signs “containing important information about preventing the spread of COVID-19 and the flu” have been posted. “Supplies of personal protective equipment for staff are being conserved and re-stocked in the event of increased demand,” Lifespan said. And the latest information “is being conveyed to hospital staff through a variety of internal communications channels.”
Similar measures are in place at Care New England, which runs three hospitals in the state.
“Emphasis to date has been to educate staff on three important steps,” Robin Neale, Care New England’s director of infection and prevention, and Dr. Raymond Powrie, executive chief of medicine and senior vice president for population health and executive chief of medicine at Women & Infants Hospital, said in a joint statement.
The three steps: “Identify patients at risk.… Isolate suspected cases immediately, preferably in a special airborne infection isolation room … [and] inform hospital infection prevention and contact the Rhode Island Department of Health for guidance on patient placement, specimen collection and testing.”
Otis Brown, vice president for external affairs at CharterCARE Health Partners, which runs two hospitals, told The Journal that “Roger Williams Medical Center and Our Lady of Fatima Hospital have been carefully preparing for weeks to be ready to immediately address any potential spread of the coronavirus in our area.”
Like Lifespan and CNE, CharterCARE has established a task force that “has conducted a tabletop training exercise to further our readiness.” It, too, remains in close communication with the Health Department and CDC.
Speaking for all hospitals in the state, Teresa Paiva Weed, president of the Hospital Association of Rhode Island, said all “have been working collaboratively with the Rhode Island Department of Health through the Healthcare Coalition of Rhode Island to prepare for a pandemic outbreak for decades.”
Since activation of the Incident Command System earlier this month, Paiva Weed said, hospitals have been in communication with the system “to monitor current capabilities, surge capabilities and personal protective equipment supplies in the event of a Rhode Island outbreak.”
Representing the medical community at large, Dr. Peter Hollmann, board chairman of the Rhode Island Medical Society and a primary care physician, told The Journal that “physicians are doing their best to stay informed as things rapidly develop. Presently, practices screen those with respiratory illness for travel history or exposure to those with the disease and review those patients with the Health Department.”
Hollmann said “in preparation for the potential spread, we are working to assess our capacity to care for people without mixing acutely sick patients and patients [who] are well or receiving chronic illness care. We are advising our patients to have medication in adequate supply and to use common-sense precautions such as hand-washing and staying at home from work or school if sick. Since we are the first place people call for advice, we want to provide reassurance and practical advice.”
In a related development, CVS Health said spiking demand for masks and hand sanitizer is affecting distribution of them. “We’re working with our suppliers to meet customer demand for these products,” Joe Goode, senior director of corporate communications, told The Journal. “This demand may cause temporary shortages at some store locations and we resupply those stores as quickly as possible.”
On Twitter: @gwaynemiller
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