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Mercy Hospital, others seek outside help amid COVID-19 surge

Health care providers tap FEMA, other assistance in battle against coronavirus
An N-95 mask placed on the “Spirit Mother” statue in front of Mercy Hospital in 2020. Mercy, through its parent company Centura Health, has requested and received staffing assistance funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help deal with a COVID-19 surge. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Mercy Hospital and others have requested backup assistance through a program funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency amid a rise in COVID-19 cases.

Centura Health announced in a newsletter last week that it received nine registered nurses and two respiratory therapists to support ICU staff with providing patient care during night and day shifts at Mercy.

Centura Health, Mercy Hospital decline to comment

Centura Health, the parent company of Mercy Hospital in Durango, has declined to speak to The Durango Herald since late November when the newspaper published a story about Mercy CEO Patrick Sharp undergoing a 10-day quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19.

The Herald emailed and placed calls to Centura seeking information about its request for staffing assistance through a program funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency but did not receive a comment.

The Herald has also sought information about the hospital changing its name from Mercy Regional Medical Center to Mercy Hospital, but has not received comment.

Mercy Hospital currently has the longest-running and largest active COVID-19 outbreak in La Plata County with 69 staff cases since Aug. 17, according to data released Wednesday by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Herald Staff

The outside staff was facilitated through the State Staffing Fusion Center, which coordinates short-term staffing requests for hospitals, residential care centers and correctional facilities. Centura said the emergency staff provisions were managed by the Colorado Department of Public Safety and funded by FEMA.

“This program was initiated by Colorado Governor Jerod (sic) Polis in order to open 500 additional beds across our state,” according to a post on Centura’s website.

Mercy and its parent company, Centura Health, did not respond to emails and phone calls this week or last week seeking additional comment about its request for FEMA support.

At a virtual town board meeting Monday, Ignacio interim Town Manager Mark Garcia said San Juan Basin Public Health reported 600 positive tests in a single day. The health department’s COVID-19 data dashboard showed a one-week cumulative case rate of 2,090 per 100,000 residents as of Wednesday.

Mercy requested backup staff and supplies from FEMA and is operating “beyond critical status,” Garcia said.

In a follow-up email to the Herald, Garcia said he was repeating information that he heard on a call with SJBPH.

“If I recall, those on the call were told by Mercy personnel that they (Mercy Hospital) were receiving assistance from FEMA due to the COVID surge and the overall load on the hospital,” Garcia said.

“We’re in a crisis,” said Ignacio Town Trustee Dixie Melton during Monday’s meeting, noting that local hospitals are full.

Melton is a family nurse practitioner and owner of Ignacio Family Medicine. She said several of her patients have died since November.

Mercy is not the only hospital seeking assistance.

San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington has requested assistance through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Disaster Medical System, according to a SJRMC blog.

The hospital received assistance for six weeks, but then the hospital received additional backup in December from Navy health care providers in association with FEMA, according to The Associated Press.

Pagosa Springs Medical Center was so short-staffed that it reached out to the Colorado Division of Homeland Security for help, said Pagosa Springs Medical Center CEO Rhonda Webb, in an interview with the Herald. The hospital received a team of five health care professionals to assist with monoclonal antibody treatments.

During the week of Jan. 3, the small hospital was at 100% capacity, but it was not completely full as of Tuesday.

Webb said her staff members are tired, including nurses and EMS staff.

“Every hospital is understaffed and it’s not just from nursing,” she said. “Everybody, from respiratory therapists, environmental services – our housekeepers are tired. You can’t put a new patient into a room if they haven’t cleaned it, right?”

If someone has a heart attack but the hospital’s ICU is full of COVID-19 patients, or in the case of Pagosa Springs, there is not an ICU unit, then that person is stuck at the hospital where he or she landed until room is available somewhere else. If other area ICUs are also full of COVID-19 patients, the heart attack victim could be waiting hours to receive full medical treatment, Webb said.

“We had three ICU-level patients about a week ago that waited more than 12 hours to get to an ICU,” she said. “That was primarily because of weather and bed shortages.”

COVID-19 patients are more labor-intensive than people suffering from many other medical conditions, Webb said. They require more resources for personal protective equipment in addition to staff resources.

Pagosa Springs Medical Center has struggled to secure more staffing assistance because other hospitals are dealing with the exact same thing, she said.

Liane Jollon, executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health, said FEMA support has two functions: It helps hospitals increase their capacity (thereby making additional beds available) or it can assist hospitals in preserving their existing capacities.

She said her understanding of FEMA support comes from information provided by the state to public health officials.

Requests for external assistance aren’t the only options available to hospitals.

Crisis Standards of Care guidelines direct health care systems about how to commit resources – such as ventilators and ICU beds – in emergencies where patients outnumber resources, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Eric France, chief medical officer for CDPHE, activated the Crisis Standards of Care for Staffing in November to address staffing needs at hospitals statewide.

The designation expands what medical workers are allowed to do. For example, in some cases, a health care worker may be able to care for only one patient, but when the Crisis Standards of Care is implemented, the worker might be able to care for three patients. It also allows health care professionals to move about departments or hospitals more freely.

In a written statement explaining his rational for activating the Crisis Standards of Care for Staffing, France said the move was driven by staff shortages that have occurred because of COVID-19 infections among health care workers, increased workloads and staff burnout.

The designation aims to expand availability of health care workers for treating COVID-19 patients, as well as others, while optimizing workplace safety. Crisis Standards of Care also aims to prevent health care worker burnout during a time of “moral and physical stress,” according to the CDPHE.

Chandler Griffin, spokesman for SJBPH, said the designation allows hospitals to adjust the staffing ratio for patients, potentially to a lower number than what they would normally receive.

“The other things that hospitals can do when they reach higher levels of crisis is have standards for who can get care and who will be actually turned away from life-saving measures,” Jollon said.

Crisis Standards of Care for Staffing have not reached the point where patients are being turned away from life-saving care, she said.

Griffin said the vast majority of COVID-19 patients in area hospitals are not vaccinated.

“If everyone were to receive a vaccine and a booster, we would not be experiencing as many COVID-19 hospitalizations as we are now,” he said last week. “It is very meaningful that from week to week – consistently from week to week – between 85% and sometimes 100% of the COVID-19 hospitalizations in our region are among unvaccinated residents.”

Freelance writer Melanie Mazur contributed to this report.

cburney@durangoherald.com

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