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Atmosphere “tense” as UnityPoint Grinnell adapts to fight COVID-19

An entrance to UnityPoint Grinnell Regional Medical Center in 2016. Photo by Sofi Mendez.

UnityPoint Grinnell Regional Medical Center (GRMC) is currently providing care for four positive COVID-19 patients. The medical center has implemented significant operational changes and ramped up personal protection equipment (PPE) collection efforts in response to the pandemic, acting in compliance with recommendations issued by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in order to quell community spread of the virus.

According to Leah Van Rees, senior marketing communications specialist at Unity Point GRMC, one of the most significant changes has been the implementation of new visitor restrictions intended to limit the number of people coming to the medical center. As a result of these restrictions, GRMC is encouraging all patients to call the hospital before coming to the facility.

“Anyone seeking healthcare should call first, whether it’s for a standard appointment that has nothing to do with potential COVID-19 or whether it’s someone who does think they might be exhibiting symptoms of a respiratory illness,” said Van Rees.

Phone assessments are more effective in protecting both the patient and the provider from potential exposure to the novel coronavirus.

To further decrease the chances of spreading the virus within the medical center, GRMC has established a respiratory care clinic in a building located away from the main hospital that includes COVID-19 testing resources. But Van Rees stressed that GRMC is not providing drive-through testing. As with other health concerns, people seeking to be tested for coronavirus must call ahead and be approved by a healthcare provider.

GRMC is using the current testing criteria of the CDC and the Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH), which prioritizes those who most urgently need a diagnosis and who are more vulnerable to the virus. This includes hospitalized patients with fever and respiratory symptoms, older adults with COVID-19 symptoms and underlying conditions, residents of “congregate settings” such as nursing homes and treatment centers, healthcare workers, essential services workers and first responders.

The hospital’s distribution of PPE has also shifted in response to the developing situation. All GRMC healthcare workers are required to wear face masks, but non-direct workers, like Van Rees, are using hand-made cloth masks, as surgical masks and N95 respirators are essential equipment for workers interacting directly with patients.

GRMC has spearheaded the effort to secure enough PPE — including N95 masks, disinfectant wipes/spray, gloves and gowns — in order to meet the need of medical workers. Unity Point has put forth guidelines on how the public can help, covering everything from monetary support to PPE donations.

So far, Van Rees said, these efforts have a lot of support from the community, ranging from businesses and organizations to individuals. Donations have even been cross-continental; 150 Grinnell alumni and parents of Chinese students have donated money or PPE to Grinnell’s healthcare workers in recent days.

In addition to PPE, concerns about ICU care availability and ventilator shortages are growing as the virus makes its way to under-resourced rural areas. GRMC is the only hospital in Poweshiek county, a county with an estimated population of around 18,500, 20.8 percent of which are persons over the age of 65, making the area more vulnerable to severe cases of COVID-19. Currently, the center has five ICU beds and three step-down beds, which provide higher-level care.

According to Van Rees, the supply of ventilators is flexible and can hopefully increase if demand for ventilators increases.

“Similar to PPE, it’s kind of a moving target in that we are always looking to make sure that what we have matches the needs of the community,” she said. “Across health care at this time, everyone is looking to make sure they have the supplies to handle a potential influx of COVID-19-positive patients.”

Grinnell College student Gyana Singh ’23 faced the stringent testing restrictions and heightened precautionary measures at GRMC when she visited the medical center last week after experiencing several days of severe body aches, fever, exhaustion and a dry cough that kept her up at night.

When she arrived, Singh was directed straight to the emergency room and given a mask. From the moment she entered, a rigorous cleaning regimen was underway. “From the moment I entered, every nook and cranny was being cleaned. … They were being really careful. Even at the reception desk, they were being extra cautious when touching things,” said Singh.

She was isolated in a small room for the entire duration of her check-up and described the atmosphere at the hospital as “tense.”

Singh was tested for mononucleosis and strep, but the doctors stopped short of testing her for COVID-19. She wasn’t showing enough symptoms to be tested for coronavirus and was told her illness was probably due to another viral infection.

“If I did have coronavirus, I wouldn’t have known,” said Singh.

In the meantime, UnityPoint is emphasizing preventative measures, primarily social distancing practices. After all, the best way to keep tests and hospital beds available to those who need them is to avoid being infected in the first place.

Van Rees explained, “If you can stay at home, stay at home, if you can. Work from home if you’re able. And come out into the community for essential needs. … So, to get your groceries, to have your healthcare appointments after you’ve called ahead and confirmed with your physician that those are the steps you need to take.”

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