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Elected officials grill Mercy over lack of transparency about COVID-19 pandemic

Leaders take issue with lack of data, saying it sows distrust within community
Elected officials demanded more information from Mercy Regional Medical Center about the COVID-19 pandemic Thursday night.

Elected officials in Southwest Colorado grilled Mercy Regional Medical Center at a public hearing Thursday for not being transparent and for sending mixed messages about the COVID-19 pandemic, which they say is resulting in distrust in the community.

“I’m fearing you’re trying to paint a rosy picture of your capacity, of the stress on your employees, and I’m just urging you to tell the true story for the community,” La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt said.

Elected officials hosted an online forum Thursday night to openly discuss the state of local health care centers amid a surge of COVID-19 cases, and at a time when officials say there is community sentiment that Mercy has not been forthright.

“You tend to think you’re being transparent,” said Durango City Councilor Barbara Noseworthy, “but it’s not been transparent, and perception is reality.”

Mercy officials have refused to disclose the maximum capacity of ICU beds at the hospital, arguing the number is a moving target that doesn’t accurately reflect the facility’s ability to provide care.

Chief Medical Officer Chris Hudson again declined to provide a number Thursday, reiterating a company position that if someone sees Mercy’s beds are full, they may not come to the hospital for care and that could exacerbate their health issue.

He also said ICU capacity is not just about beds, but also available staff members and equipment.

Instead, Hudson maintained throughout the meeting that anyone who comes to Mercy will receive care, and that since the start of the pandemic, no one, not even transfers from other hospitals, has been turned away.

Shauna Gulley with Centura Health (Mercy’s parent company) said some patients have been transferred who have required a higher level of care – a common practice even pre-pandemic.

But elected officials weren’t buying it.

Noseworthy, for instance, said she saw a post on Facebook from a trusted person who said her husband was going in for serious surgery, and if he needed ICU care, he would have to be sent to Albuquerque. And, elected officials said regional health care centers have said in public that patient transfers to Mercy have had to be redirected because the hospital did not have the capacity to care for them.

Mercy’s lack of transparency, several elected officials said, has sowed distrust in the community, and by painting a rosy picture, it’s harder to convince the public to follow health guidelines aimed at avoiding hospitals hitting maximum capacity.

“Transparency does seem to be the key downfall with communication to the community, it is what I get the most questions about,” said Bayfield Town Trustee Kristin Dallison. “If we don’t have that data, or if the answer is ‘the hospital is doing well and has space,’ explaining the drastic measures we are taking here is impossible.”

Elected officials also said the data is part of a range of criteria that helps inform the community about when it may move to less restrictive public health orders.

La Plata County Commissioner Julie Westendorff said Southwest Memorial Hospital in Cortez regularly releases information to the public about capacity and how health care workers are stressed, which fosters community support.

“As we’ve learned in local government, if you don’t tell people what’s going on, they make up their own ideas of what’s going on,” she said.

Durango Mayor Dean Brookie said he was told by Mercy CEO Michael Murphy last week that it was not possible to draw resources from other Centura network hospitals as surges are being felt across the country.

So Brookie took issue with Hudson’s repeated claim Thursday night that anyone who comes to Mercy will get care, no matter what, calling it a “180” from what elected officials were told a week ago.

“We want a much more solid answer than what we’ve got,” Brookie said. “It’s created suspicion in the community over the past few weeks and it’s not good for any of us.”

Mercy officials have said they report hospitalization numbers to the state of Colorado twice a day, and repeated those numbers are available on a network called EMS Resource.

But elected officials were quick to point out that EMS Resource is not available to the public. San Juan Basin Public Health Executive Director Liane Jollon added the local health department is also limited on access to this data and what it can share.

After the onslaught of criticism, Hudson again said putting a number to an ICU bed capacity would not serve the public interest.

“Reporting a number could create concerns for public fear and panic,” he said. “When the reality is, we have the resources (to care for patients).”

Which set off another round of criticism.

“If you say, ‘everything is fine, don’t worry we can take care of you,’ then our argument that we need to flatten the curve to stop hospital capacity doesn’t add up,” Noseworthy said.

Hudson responded, “Having capacity (for care) doesn’t mean everything is fine … everything is not status quo or normal.”

Gulley also said, “Don’t misunderstand capacity for stress.”

Several other questions were on elected officials’ minds, namely if staff members who have tested positive, but are asymptomatic, have been required to come to work at Mercy.

Hudson said no staff members who tested positive and are asymptomatic – or even anyone who is asymptomatic with a pending test result – has come to work at Mercy.

At the end of the meeting, there seemed to be consensus among elected officials and Mercy representatives that communications and messaging need to improve in the coming days.

But it was unclear what exactly is the next step forward.

“We need to make real the seriousness of this not only on the patients, but on (health care workers),” Noseworthy said. “Everyone wants to support the health care workers, but we don’t have a real sense how bad it is.”

jromeo@durangoherald.com

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