“It’s real”: Hospital serving rural Mifflin and Juniata counties benefiting from early-pandemic “exercise” as COVID-19 cases surge now

Coronavirus in Pennsylvania

LEWISTOWN, Pa. (WHTM) — As COVID-19 cases surged in New York City and then elsewhere, Geisinger Lewistown Hospital took some of the same steps the big-city hospitals were taking. But there was a big difference.

“Back in the spring, we put up our ‘COVID tent.’ We prepared,” said Bonnie Bowsman, the hospital’s operations manager of critical care and the ER. “But it was almost like an exercise.”

After all, Mifflin and surrounding counties, such as Juniata, were a half-year away from COVID-19 infection rates that would test the hospital’s ability to simultaneously treat COVID patients and others. Who knew, back then, whether that would ever happen? For that matter, as recently as mid-October, who knew whether that would ever happen?

Then came the surge, and this time, not only were Mifflin and Juniata along for the ride. They topped the statewide tables of COVID-19 metrics. For the most recent week reported (through Nov. 19), no Pennsylvania county had a higher rate of active cases per 100,000 residents than Mifflin County (which has just 46,138 people, according to U.S. Census estimates); no county had a higher positive COVID-19 test rate than Juniata and its 24,704 residents.

Now, of the 96 patients in the hospital — according to Michael Hegstrom, its chief medical officer — 48, or fully 50 percent, have COVID-19. The hospital has 130 beds. Staffing challenges, not space, have been the biggest constraint.

Bowsman, a nurse, said motivating staff to pitch in hasn’t been difficult. In fact, she has the opposite problem.

“They’re working 60 and 70 and 80 and 90 hours a week,” she said of nurses she supervises. “And I’m constantly saying, ‘Yeah I need you, but don’t overdo it.'”

She said local residents and businesses have been equally eager, and sometimes equally too eager, to help. “Our local Domino’s was supplying us three times a day with pizza,” she said. “This went on for weeks and weeks until we finally had to contact them and express our appreciation but were like, ‘Okay, reach out to the nursing homes, or who else can you support?'”

Hegstrom said the hospital has mostly been able to accommodate people needing care. Still, it has had to cancel some elective procedures, and “We have had to send a few of our ICU patients who we could have potentially taken care of” to other hospitals, typically within the Geisinger chain.

With a close-up view of the suffering, he volunteers — without being asked what people outside the hospital can do to help — his view of what people outside the hospital can do to help.

“Masking in public should be a civic responsibility,” Hegstrom said. “It’s like paying taxes or stopping at a stop sign. It should be something we all do to help take care of us.”

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